Defense Sequestration Would Hit The South Hardest

The Budget Control Act of 2011 mandates $600 billion in spending cuts at the Pentagon over the next nine years, which minus an assumed 18% savings in interest payments from a smaller federal budget means an actual reduction of $492 billion — $55 billion per year. That’s on top of similarly-sized cuts that were instituted last year pursuant to the same law. So whereas two years ago the White House was predicting a fiscal 2013 military budget of about $600 billion, it now looks likely to be about $490 billion (not counting overseas contingencies).

That’s assuming the budget law is implemented as written after the two-month delay agreed to in this week’s bi-partisan fiscal agreement. Right now, a lot of smart people in Washington are predicting it will be, because Republicans are so angry about having to compromise with the White House on tax rates that they’re determined to force major savings when new fiscal deadlines arrive in March. That would mean “sequestration” of military spending accounts — arbitrary, across-the-board reductions of about 13% in budget authority for everything except military pay and benefits. Domestic discretionary spending would be sequestered too, albeit at a lower rate.

However, the smart money is probably wrong about sequestration being implemented as planned, due to some compelling political considerations. Foremost among these is the fact that if the sequestration provisions of the budget law are actually triggered, it is the Republican electoral base in the South that will be hurt the most. Spending cuts to domestic programs would affect every state, but the nation’s military infrastructure is disproportionately concentrated in the South, which has also become the heartland of the Republican Party since Richard Nixon devised his so-called Southern Strategy in 1970 to wrest control of the former Confederacy away from Democrats.

If you just think for a moment about where the nation’s biggest military bases are located, you’ll see my point. The Army’s biggest base, Fort Hood, is in Texas. Its airborne corps is headquartered at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Its infantry school is located at Fort Benning in Georgia. The biggest Marine Corps bases east of the Mississippi are in North Carolina (Camp Lejeune) and Virginia (Quantico). The Navy’s Atlantic fleet is concentrated in Florida and Virginia. The Air Force’s Air Combat Command is headquartered at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Even the Pentagon is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

And then there are the military-industrial sites. The Army has three of its five big maintenance depots in Alabama (Anniston) and Texas (Corpus Christi and Red River). The Air Force has two of its three air logistics centers in Oklahoma and Georgia (the other is in Utah). The Marine Corp’s main logistics center for the East Coast is in Albany, Georgia. The two plants assembling the tri-service F-35 fighter are located in Texas and Georgia. The only shipyards that build aircraft carriers and amphibious warships are located in Virginia and on the Gulf Coast, respectively.

The main reason all these military sites are in the South is that for a century after the Civil War ended, the states of the former Confederacy were one-party systems in which only Democrats could win office. So politicians like F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana and L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina accumulated enough seniority to win the powerful chairmanships of congressional armed-services committees, which they then used to distribute military largesse to their home states. There wasn’t much else happening in the South at the time, so military spending became a big part of the local economy. Other regions had more robust, diverse economies, and thus their congressional delegations didn’t work as hard to win military facilities.

So the economy of my wife’s hometown in southern Georgia benefits mightily from Pentagon spending at nearby Fort Benning, the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, and the huge logistics center at Warner Robbins Air Force Base in Macon. In my hometown, in Massachusetts, nobody ever sees a soldier or sailor unless they go to the Fourth of July parade. There are almost no bases in the state. I don’t want to exaggerate the disparity– there are plenty of civilian workers at companies like General Dynamics and Raytheon in Massachusetts whose jobs depend on Pentagon spending. But their impact on the local economy is modest compared with the 35,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians at Fort Hood.

Bottom line: Once Republicans look beyond their anger over this week’s fiscal outcome, they’ll realize that arbitrary cuts to the defense budget are likely to hurt their home states a lot more than places like Massachusetts and Michigan. And when they grasp that fact, they’ll get serious about finding alternatives to sequestration as the government grapples with its trillion-dollar deficits. The fiscal deadlines in March are a political contrivance rather than a real crisis, so there are plenty of ways of avoiding the harm to the Republican base that defense sequestration poses.