Whatever the new level for the defense budget after March 27 (it is likely to be less than what the administration asked for), it sets a new baseline for the sequester itself. Then the question is, will Congress use the occasion of passing a new CR or an appropriations bill to "fix" the sequester? Will the bill be used to give the Pentagon greater flexibility to implement the sequester or change the allocation of dollars inside the defense budget to make the implementation of the sequester "easier" in some way? Will it change the caps set out in the Budget Control Act, so the sequester is reduced, or not needed altogether?
If this sounds complicated, it is because it is complicated -- very complicated. Congress cannot just appropriate more money to Defense and "fix" the sequester that way. Doing so would just set a new baseline from which sequester would take place. So to "fix" the sequester, they have to do something about the caps set in the Budget Control Act, which put the whole train wreck in motion.
And trying to fix it in an appropriations act is even more complicated. I was talking this through with Richard Kogan at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the best informed people in Washington on this issue. It seems that if Congress tries to add money to Defense but doesn't want those funds to create a new target for the sequester, they would have to ask, specifically, that those additional funds not be "scored" against the sequester target -- a fancy way of saying, these monies just don't count. If they try to cancel part of the sequestration, they would have to say the cancellation doesn't count.
Either way -- in fact, almost any way the Congress tries to use the appropriations act to fix sequester or make it easier, including greater flexibility -- would encounter the reality that they are messing with the basic congressional budget statute and process. Meaning that the jurisdiction for these changes belongs not to the appropriators, but to the budget committees.
And if the budget committees do not sign off on the changes, they are subject to what is called a "point of order" in the House and the Senate. Meaning that the House might not be able to consider them, and one member of the Senate can stop the process. Imagine Senator Rand Paul or Tom Coburn saying, this will not stand; I prefer sequester. Then the Senate would need 60 votes for the changes in order to overcome the sequester.
I told you it was complicated. It makes it sound like a deal at the end of March is going to be almost impossible, given the current atmosphere. If sequester doesn't kill you, the appropriations and budget process will. And if you don't get agreement in the maze of requirements and provisions I just described, you could get a continuing resolution that goes through September, plus a sequester, or maybe even the cherry on top -- a government shut-down.
It's going to take a lot of good will to climb this mountain, something that is in noticeably short supply in Washington right now. Just take flexibility about how to enact the cuts: The administration says it doesn't want it and it won't help, because everything gets hit anyway, particularly operations at DOD. And if the administration has it, they have to make choices, choices that could get them in trouble with members of Congress whose oxen are gored. Congress is uneasy about it for the same reason -- it gives the administration too much freedom of action. Members of Congress hate that, especially appropriators. Furthermore, flexibility will only be politically possible if every agency gets it; otherwise, a defense-only flexibility bill is unlikely to make it through the Senate.
It's going to take some very heavy lifting to fix sequester, and even more lifting to get an appropriation. Even thinking about it gives Members of Congress (and analysts) a headache. The bottom line is that the defense bottom line is coming down, and the only question is how fast and how far.