As this display of inept stagecraft continues, it's reasonable to ask: Does it matter? Is the republic safe and secure amid this ridiculous display? Or, as four military service chiefs testified in September, will military readiness and national security be the drive-by victims of this marching troop of actors on the road to nowhere? (OK, my metaphors, not theirs.) As Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, put it, "If the magnitude and speed of the discretionary cap reductions remain, the Army will not be able to fully execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance requirements.… Reductions in force structure and end strength [will happen], which in my view will add significant risk for the Army to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."
Go carefully, too, into this portion of the play. The testimony is before the House Armed Services Committee, whose chair, Buck McKeon, has been warning for two years that the sequester and budget cuts will turn the United States into a second-rate power. The specialty here is kabuki theater or, better yet, an Indonesian shadow play. Members of the committee, playing "members," appear to ask questions, and the service chiefs, playing "chiefs," appear to answer them. It is stylized, designed to elicit the most fervent support of national defense from the "members" and the most fervent pleas to stave off disaster from the "chiefs."
In reality, a sequester is still in rehearsal and will be until January. It will open out of town, while Washington plays out the current runs of Shutdown: The Drama and Debt Ceiling: The Crisis of the Markets. Later this fall, watch for the opening of The Omnibus: Will We Be Saved by the Appropriators?
If rehearsals go well, the Department of Defense (DOD) should know what to expect. It survived Sequester I; it could survive Sequester: The Sequel. Pentagon spending plans for the fiscal year (FY) drama that opens on Oct. 1 already assume that the DOD will get no more money in this coming fiscal year than it has in the fiscal year about to end. If a sequester happens again, it means something like another $20 billion to cut -- hard, but not impossible.
(Now, follow the subtext in the script. The Pentagon keeps talking about $52 billion in cuts if a sequester happens. But that assumes that the president's budget request for FY 2014 is real. What is real is the new sequester level of funding, and that's about $20 billion below the level of funding the department received in this FY after the initial sequester. There is some surreal theater going on here, too, as the financial staff at DOD scrambles around. It's a knockoff of a Pirandello play, this one called Six Financial Planners in Search of an Author.)
We are stuck in the existential land so well described by Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit. The way out is not clear, and for now, the incentives to keep the drama going are strong. And those who might bring down the curtain are not yet visible.