Why I Stopped Using the “S” Word…and You Should Too

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Why I Stopped Using the “S” Word…and You Should Too
By: Todd Harrison

It comes in many forms: sequester, sequestration, and (my personal favorite) sequestrable—as in “sequestrable budgetary resources.” Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, the “s” word has in many ways become synonymous with its four-letter counterpart, meaning something vulgar, offensive, and detestable. Everyone dislikes the “s” word, and for good reason. But I am increasingly dismayed at how the “s” word gets thrown around carelessly by senior policymakers as a way of avoiding a more difficult discussion. They use it to describe something generally bad related to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) and not an actual sequester. Here are a few examples of what I mean from congressional testimony with last year’s budget rollout (emphasis added):

  • “Parts of our nation’s defense strategy cannot be executed under sequestration, which remains the law of the land and is set to return 212 days from today.”—Defense Secretary Ash Carter
  • “The Army has already undertaken significant cost cutting efforts and reduced personnel and equipment requirements during the first two years of sequestration.”—General Raymond Odierno, Army Chief of Staff
  • “The impacts on readiness and modernization outlined above would result in an Air Force that, at sequestered levels of funding, cannot successfully execute all Defense Strategic Guidance requirements.”—General Mark Welsh, Air Force Chief of Staff
  • Sequestration reductions will cut the DoD’s 10 year plan by approximately $600 billion.”—General Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps
  • “A return to sequestration in FY 2016 would necessitate a revisit and revision of the DSG [Defense Strategic Guidance].”—Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations

What’s wrong with these uses of the “s” word? First, sequestration has a specific meaning. It is the automatic process of cutting the budget if Congress appropriates more than the BCA budget caps allow. To be clear, sequestration and the budget caps are not the same thing. The budget caps set an upper limit to how much funding Congress can appropriate, and sequestration is the enforcement mechanism in case Congress exceeds those limits. All of the quotes above would make more sense if “sequestration” were replaced with “the BCA budget caps.”

Staying within the budget cap does not sound all that bad—it actually sounds fiscally responsible, like living within your means. So rather than say what they really mean, many civilian, military, and congressional leaders have started throwing in the “s” word every chance they get. It makes staying within the budget cap sound scary. They use phrases like “sequestration-level,” “sequestration budget caps,” or just “sequestration.” But in nearly all cases, they don’t mean the automatic across-the-board cuts of sequestration at all. They just mean staying within the budget caps.

What makes sequestration so detestable is the way it works: cutting a uniform percentage across all applicable accounts. It is the “goofy meat ax” former defense secretary Leon Panetta once decried, or the “peanut butter” approach Admiral Mike Mullen warned about. Sequestration is an incredibly stupid way to cut the budget because it makes cuts without regard to priority or consequences. Sequestration was triggered in FY 2013, but it has not been used since then.

It is highly unlikely sequestration will be triggered again, but one would not know that from the above statements. That’s right, we are not in danger of sequestration being triggered. Why? Because Congress is well aware of the fact that if it appropriates more than the budget caps allow, that extra funding will be automatically cut through the clumsy mechanism of sequestration. This is why I take issue with the rampant misuse of the “s” word.

So why am I making a big deal out of something that is really just a matter of semantics? If we all know that when people say sequestration they don’t mean a literal sequester (although occasionally they do), then what’s the big deal?

It’s important because the words we use matter, especially when it comes to making policy. Remember when the Bush administration started calling the 2003 Iraq invasion a part of the Global War on Terror? That implicitly linked the Iraq invasion to 9/11 and the fight against al Qaeda. A 2003 Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans believed Iraq was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. If so many Americans had not wrongly believed that Iraq was linked to 9/11, would the policy outcome (the decision to invade Iraq) have been different? We will never know for sure, but labeling Iraq as part of the Global War on Terror certainly did not help foster a rational and informed debate.

The misleading and deceptive use of words may be smart politics, but it does not lead to better policy outcomes. Instead of lazily trying to equate the BCA’s budget constraints with the foolish across-the-board cuts of sequestration, senior leaders should make a better case for why defense should not be forced to stay within the BCA budget caps. And I think it’s a fairly straightforward argument to make.

The BCA budget caps are arbitrary constraints set without regard to defense strategy or the threats we face as a nation. The appropriate level of defense spending should be determined by the security challenges we face, our strategy for meeting those challenges, how efficiently and effectively the military is allowed to use its resources, and the trade-offs required elsewhere in the federal budget. The strategy we are now trying to pursue requires more resources than the BCA budget caps allow, even assuming best-case scenarios for efficiency initiatives and defense reform. The United States should either scale back its strategy and commitments around the world to fit the budget constraints imposed—and be willing to live with the consequences that may ensue—or reset the budget caps to a level commensurate with the strategy.

Notice that in making the case against the BCA budget caps I never once used the “s” word. But also notice that my argument leaves room for debate—debate over the proper role of the military in our foreign policy and the proper level of security commitments for our partners and allies around the world. Having that debate may be scary for some, but it’s no excuse for using the “s” word.

Director of Defense Budget Analysis and Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Other posts by .


  • Raymond P. Clark
    February 9, 2016, 9:53 am  Reply

    Here, here!

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