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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 14, 2018
Mica Soellner
By Mica Soellner February 14, 2018

Sequester still on the books, but rendered moot by spending spike

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised to end the tight budget restrictions that were put in place on the military after a failure to reach a bipartisan spending agreement in 2013.

So how did the major spending bill enacted in February 2018 affect this promise? The process Trump was targeting -- known as sequestration -- remains on the books, but at least for 2018 and 2019, it has effectively been neutered.

Sequestration refresher

Originally, sequestration was designed to be a draconian last resort to push representatives from the two parties to come to an agreement. The sequester would force across-the-board budget cuts in excess of $1 trillion over a decade -- a prospect seemingly too toxic for lawmakers to contemplate. But when the negotiations between the parties failed, the cuts were enacted by default.

On two occasions -- 2013 and 2015 -- Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to raise the "caps" on spending above the sequestration level, paid for by offsetting cuts elsewhere. But those higher caps expired, setting the stage for the spending showdown of February 2018.

We should note that while Trump only pledged to end the sequester for defense spending, another major category of federal spending was also affected by sequestration — "discretionary" spending for a whole host of non-defense areas, from energy to diplomacy.

February spending deal

February's spending deal was passed with the support of a bipartisan coalition, though with many detractors in both parties. So what does it do?

On the one hand, "the budget deal does not technically end the sequester," said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The underlying law, the Budget Control Act, is still in place, and the budget caps for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 remain at their original level."

That said, the spending agreement increases the level of the budget caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 by such a large amount that a sequester "is much less likely to occur," Harrison said.

Specifically, the budget deal allows defense spending as high as $629 billion in 2018 -- a lot higher than the sequestration level of $549 billion. And it would allow $647 billion in 2019, much higher than the $562 billion level that would have been permitted under sequestration.

Effectively, then, while sequestration remains on the books, it is now effectively moot, at least for 2018 and 2019. Beyond that, Congress would have to act again to lift sequestration going forward.

"The budget deal did more than fully repeal the sequester for fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019," said Tyler Evilsizer, research manager for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "It increased funding for defense above the levels where it would have been if the sequester had never occurred."

Also noteworthy: These numbers exclude war-related spending, which wasn't subject to the previous regime of budget caps.

Ultimately, the defense sequester remains on the books, but it has been rendered toothless by the budget deal. For the next two years at least, defense spending is set to increase substantially. So, Trump accomplished his goal without technically doing it the way he said he would, though it only holds for two years. We rate this a Compromise.

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll May 24, 2017

White House budget requests funding to end defense sequester

President Donald Trump's first official budget calls for ending the defense sequester and increasing military spending — but he needs Congress to sign off on the plan in order to keep his promise.

Several years ago, Congress set up automatic spending cuts, known as "sequestration," amid failing negotiations among lawmakers and Barack Obama's administration over the federal debt limit and government spending. About half of the cuts hit defense.

The Trump administration's fiscal year 2018 budget, released May 23, bypasses current caps on spending and requests $639 billion for defense programs, a $54 billion increase from current levels.

The budget says that the world has become more dangerous since sequestration began in 2013, yet the military has become smaller and less prepared.

"The president's budget ends this depletion and begins to rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces, laying the groundwork for a larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force consistent with a new national defense strategy," the document says.

The White House Office of Management and Budget says the funds could pay for 56,400 more soldiers or dozens of new fighter aircraft and ships.

But the White House budget is just a proposal. Congress alone has the power to appropriate funds.

That said, the document reflects Trump's priorities, including ending the defense sequester. Until Congress decides whether it will grant Trump's request, this promise remains In the Works.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 27, 2017

Trump's proposed budget would blast through defense spending caps

President Donald Trump has proposed a significant increase in defense spending as he promised on the campaign trail -- though fully keeping his promise will depend on what Congress does to implement his vision.

Here's the backstory: In 2011, the federal government was nearing its legal debt limit, which meant that Congress had to authorize a higher level for borrowing. House Republicans insisted that spending cuts be passed alongside an increase to the debt limit. However, the negotiations fell apart, and Republicans and Democrats came to a less ambitious debt-limit agreement, enacted as the Budget Control Act of 2011.

As an incentive to find further cuts, the law included an unusual budget threat: It set up automatic, across-the-board cuts, with half of those cuts hitting defense, if Congress couldn't agree on more cuts. These automatic cuts were known as "sequestration," or the "sequester." While the framework was intended to force action rather than set policy, it ended up going into effect after the two sides could not reach an agreement, and it has been in place ever since.

Trump's budget proposal "repeals the defense sequestration" by restoring $52 billion to the Defense Department, as well as $2 billion to other national defense programs outside defense. That works out to a $54 billion total increase above the budget cap.

"This increase alone exceeds the entire defense budget of most countries, and would be one of the largest one-year (Defense Department) increases in American history," the budget proposal said.

"He said he would ask, and he did," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Of course, nothing is done until legislation is passed."

Trump has taken a significant step in fulfilling this promise by proposing the elimination of the budget caps on defense, and by proposing a funding increase well beyond current levels. But most presidential budget proposals face intense scrutiny by lawmakers, who hold the key to their enactment. We rate this promise In the Works.

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