"Elections have consequences" -- so then-new Republican House members liked to say earlier this year about locking the focus of Washington on spending and debt, where it has mostly stayed.
President Obama might have issued this amendment: "Failure has consequences." If you thought the surrender of the super committee meant Congress could just lay down the pistol it has pointed at its own face and go back to comfortable gridlock -- "No," Obama said Monday.
The president promised to veto any attempt to repeal or void or block the now-ubiquitous budget "sequestration" triggered by the failure of the super committee, setting up a 500 mile-per-hour game of chicken with Republican opponents. "You wanna get nuts?" Obama effectively asked Congress, channeling Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. "Let's get nuts!"
This is governing in the second decade of the 21st century: So-called "hostage taker" Republicans were willing to shut down the government and default on the U.S. debt if they didn't get what they wanted -- eventually leading to the now-disgraced super committee. These kinds of tactics are an arms race, not a negotiation, so Obama believes he must leave the Pentagon tied to Monday's clockwork gears of death in order to get his opponents to take their jobs seriously.
Make no mistake: The president and Secretary Panetta say they both oppose sequestration -- the White House and the Pentagon both made clear Monday they understand that almost $1 trillion in reduced DoD budget growth over the next ten years would have dire consequences for the force. And yet Obama and Panetta both want to keep that threat alive as an incentive for the full Congress.
The rules of the game could give the edge to the president: Even if Obama does not win reelection next November, he'd stay in office until January of 2013. That's when the Sword of Damocles would finally fall on Washington -- in fact, if Obama loses, the sequester might be one of the final events of his administration. So even if Republicans' strategy were to wait until the presidential election in the hopes that one of their guys gets in, the new GOP president might not be inaugurated in time to sign a bill changing the budget cuts -- assuming a new Congress could even act quickly enough to blunt them.
In the meantime, DoD and other federal agencies now have to spend the next year unsure about how to draft their budgets and long-term plans. If the whole Congress can't agree on an alternate deal to reduce the debt by $1.2 trillion and get the president's assent to void sequestration, that means a roughly $100 billion cut to DoD's projected fiscal 2013 budget, Panetta wrote Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
What's more, Congress would have to authorize DoD to apportion and reprogram its budgets accordingly -- "current law does not provide flexibility," Panetta wrote. So if the whole Congress also failed to get an alternative deal for $1.2 trillion and it looked like sequestration would kick in, would Obama at least sign a bill that authorized DoD to rearrange its deck chairs? Or would Obama and Panetta eventually be the ones to flinch and try to come to terms at the last minute to prevent the sequester? Or, if Republicans took full control of Congress and the White House, could they turn back time and retroactively erase all the danger to the defense budget?
There's no way to know. With all this in play over the coming year -- or at least boiling beneath the surface -- it could continue to be a very bumpy ride for the military-industrial-congressional complex.