You don’t need to look at big-ticket weapon systems like aircraft carriers and fighters to see what budget sequestration might mean for America’s military capabilities. In fact, you don’t need to look at Pentagon programs at all. Consider the Coast Guard, the modestly-funded maritime force located within the Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard has been struggling to replace a dozen obsolete cutters with eight more capable “national security cutters,” and that program was under pressure from White House budgeteers even before sequestration became a real possibility. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr. told a Navy League meeting this morning that his service’s fiscal 2013 budget is “not terrible” compared with what the other armed forces are facing. However, it’s an open question whether cutter modernization will survive as the budget walls begin closing in.
If modernization doesn’t survive, the Coast Guard will have to continue operating vessels like theGallatin, a 43-year-old cutter that had to be yanked out of service for repairs when three of its four engines failed and both electric generators stopped working. The ship was actually operating on emergency power the day the decision was made to withdraw it from patrols along the nation’s southern maritime approaches. Because of water leakage in its hull, the ship had become infested with rats and other vermin. Does this sound like the kind of homeland-security vessel that the world’s last remaining superpower should be operating? Well get used to it if sequestration becomes reality, because there may not be a replacement once the budget adjustments are completed. Gallatin is back in service now — it recently seized several tons of cocaine en route to the U.S. — but how much longer it can continue performing that mission is anyone’s guess.
If we want to avoid being forced to keep ships like Gallatin in service, then sequester must be averted. However, President Obama says he’ll veto any repeal of sequestration unless the measure includes the $1.2 trillion in savings required by the Budget Control Act. And Republicans say that come hell or high water, they aren’t going to sign up to tax increases. The message here is clear: sequestration probably can’t be prevented as long as the current alignment of political forces persists. The system is too paralyzed to repeal the budget act, just as it was too polarized to fashion a way of dealing with deficits less draconian than sequestration.
In such circumstances, the only plausible solution is a national election that delivers control of the political system to one or the other party. If Republicans take the Congress in 2012 and Democrats manage to hold onto the White House, then the logjam will continue and sequestration will probably unfold as presently mandated in the law. If Democrats take everything, or Republicans do, then the system can escape the stalemate in which it is currently trapped. Once they fully controlled the levers of federal power, Democrats would satisfy the requirements of the law by raising taxes — even though they would also move to repeal it. Republicans would try to cut spending rather than raise taxes, but whether they succeeded in that effort or not, they would definitely move to eliminate the portions of the Budget Control Act slashing military outlays. The paradox of our present circumstances is that either party can head off the threat of sequestration, but only if the opposition party is deprived of power in an election. So if the 2012 election produces a split decision, the aged Gallatin is likely to continue chasing drug runners for a long time to come.
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