Absurdistan, D.C.

How Republicans are threatening to turn Washington into a failed state.

The budget theater on Capitol Hill just gets more and more complex, intriguing, and -- perhaps above all -- embarrassing. First there was tragedy in August 2011, when Congress passed a budget act that created an undemocratic process, stripping policymakers of responsibility for reductions in both defense and discretionary spending. That was followed by farce -- the Tale of the Fiscal Cliff, if you will -- last winter, when Republicans in the House borrowed votes from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to avoid a market meltdown.

Today, we are faced with a new play, perhaps the "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" play that Polonius spoke of, or the Bard's earlier Comedy of Errors. Certainly, it's making a laughing stock of Congress. Watching Bob Corker verbally assault Ted Cruz on Thursday, Sept. 26, was almost worth selling tickets to see.

To add to the insanity -- we could call this part improv -- the writers keep changing the script at lightning speed even though the play has already begun. First, the Republicans threaten a shutdown if they cannot "defund" (not possible -- most of it is regulations and bureaucratic processes, not discretionary money) something called "Obamacare" (actually largely written by Congress, not by Obama). So government agencies dust off the playbooks on a shutdown, the ones written in the 1990s and rewritten in 2011. But when the Senate calls the GOP's bluff and strips out this provision, the House Republicans start to get cold feet -- the potato is being tossed back to them and, if opinion polls are to be believed, Republicans will pay when a shutdown happens. All of a sudden, the plot doesn't look so good.

Shift the scene, the writers say -- let's talk about the debt ceiling, instead, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says will arrive on Oct. 17. Let's put Obamacare on that bill. And while we're at it, let's load up the scenery with every other theatrical flat (a piece of scenery meant to represent reality but that is two-dimensional, with no depth) that we have invented in the last two years: tax reform, abolishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, building the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's toss out perhaps as many as 20 pieces of legislation (which, in fact, are best left in the scenery warehouse).

And let's do it right away, they say, instead of wasting time on a shutdown. Oh, sorry, that script was improved onstage -- let's hold the debt-ceiling bill until we can round up enough supporting cast to pass it.

As if the public was going to take more seriously a stage setting that looked like the warped mirrors in a sideshow fun house.

The play will not end soon, sadly. A grand bargain on the budget would be a happy ending, but it is not in the script. It fell apart earlier in September, when the White House found itself talking to the wrong people in the Senate -- bit players who did not have the capacity to make a deal, and had no incentive to do so.

Now, similarly, the play will not end, because there is no enticement to end it. (Rather like Samuel Beckett's Endgame, is it not? Ends up where it started.) The fundamental problem is that of audience: Unrestrained gerrymandering to ensure conservative Republican districts over the past 20 years has led to a House Republican caucus consisting of members who are safe with their Tea Party voters and a handful of Republicans who are terrified of the Tea Party's reaction if they cut a deal. There are many reasons to criticize the Democrats for weak leadership and lack of imagination. But right now, it is the Republicans who look disorganized. The party is fractured and cowering in front of the footlights.

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.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

National Security

Shots Fired

The battles over a drawdown at the Pentagon may have begun, but senior leadership is still prioritizing politics over hard budget realities.

We are almost through the first year of the sequester, and the impact at the Department of Defense (DOD) has been less serious than advertised. The aircraft carrier Truman sailed to the Gulf; civilian furloughs were predicted to be 22 days, but instead were cut to six; and forces were clearly ready to fire on Syria if the president had asked. Was the sequester a mirage for the Pentagon? No, but the capacity of the DOD to manage the situation has actually been pretty impressive.

As I have said before, the tools DOD has to manage sequestration cuts are significantly more flexible than those of other departments: Military personnel are exempted from the sequester, and existing hardware contracts are also not affected by it; reprogramming authorities are large and flexible; war funding is fungible with non-war operating funds; funding for operations, training, and administration is also extremely fungible and doesn't require asking Congress's permission to move money around; and Congress gave DOD an actual appropriation this year, which was not the fate of most other federal departments. (This increased DOD's operations funding.)

Let me be clear: The sequester is not a walk in the park. The Pentagon would rather have even more flexibility -- who wouldn't? But in reality, the sequester only accelerates a process that has been underway since fiscal year (FY) 2011: We are in a defense drawdown, and that is what the DOD needs to be planning for.

The political process in a drawdown typically erupts into two kinds of battles: the one between the Pentagon and Congress ("if you cut us, do we not bleed badly?") and the one among the services ("the military must absorb cuts, but take them from the other guy"). We are heading into a budget war that will involve both of these battles -- a war that, as long-time Pentagon observer George Wilson once said, "really matters."

As an example of an early shot in the first type of battle, acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said that his service could probably protect future budgets for its new fighter (the F-35) and its new tanker (the KC-46), but that it might have to get rid of its close air support aircraft (the A-10) and its more modern tanker (the KC-10). The Air Force has wanted to put the A-10 over the side for years, but the KC-10? That sounds like more of a Washington Monument cut -- you know, "If you slash the budget of the National Park Service, we will have to close the monument."

Meanwhile, the harbinger of the second battle came from former Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughhead when he argued that ground forces (the Army and Marines) could take deeper cuts than currently projected, while the Navy budget should stay large. He may be strategically correct (I am inclined to agree with him), but his suggestion was not well received everywhere in the Army. My conversations suggest this particular battle is just now getting underway as the services prepare to respond to the request for sequester-level budget choices.

So it appears that the Pentagon is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee -- that is, to acknowledge that the drawdown is happening. Nonetheless, there is still a tendency at the DOD to make things look worse than they are, or to shape the budget realities to suit budget politics. For example, the Pentagon is still talking about the dangers of a $52-billion cut in FY 2014 if a sequester happens again. But another way of looking at things is that the sequester this year already took away more than $30 billion, setting a new baseline for the FY 2014 defense budget. The DOD comptroller, the redoubtable Bob Hale, keeps emphasizing this view: "If they've cut $30 billion, you'd probably better execute at that and maybe even be a little risk averse and go below that."

Given that FY 2013's sequester-level funding is now the new normal for defense, last spring's "wish list" for the DOD is now just that -- a wish. It can no longer be used for measuring cuts. Although it makes better politics for the Pentagon to compare a possible FY 2014 sequester to the old number, rather than the new one, it has to start admitting that, over the next two to three years, the defense budget is going to settle somewhere around $450 billion (in this year's dollars). This would make this drawdown similar to the ones we have gone through in the past.

Some see a budget agreement with Congress as a way out of this reality. Don't count on it -- Congress has never seemed further away from an agreement. House Republicans can't even agree on a continuing resolution to tide the government over to December.

The Pentagon's leadership needs to emphasize reality over politics and continue pushing the services to accept and plan for the drawdown. It will be a manageable change, especially if the leadership keeps up a drumbeat about shrinking the Pentagon's overhead. Christine Fox, former head of the Pentagon's Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation and the leader of DOD's most recent strategy and management review, argued in a recent Defense News editorial that the "back office" could not be cut deeply or quickly because the people there are doing things that need to be done, including logistical support and equipment repairs. She left out some key data, however. Like the fact that the Congressional Budget Office notes 60 percent of the overhead is in infrastructure, unrelated to readiness. Or that there are, as Hale estimates, 700,000 contractor personnel (not the military, not civil servants) that are doing back-office work. Or that even a substantial number of folks in uniform are performing civilian or contractor functions, according to the Defense Business Board.

Shrinking the Pentagon will not solve all problems. But senior leadership can tackle the issue more aggressively than it has thus far and create lasting savings. If Pentagon leaders -- both military and civilian -- take this challenge on fully and honestly, they will be creating budgetary space for the forces and technology that are most important for the military's future.

Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/DVIDS