The truth about governing the U.S. is that while the Founders never intended it to be easy, it is only as hard as Americans choose to make it. And when they decide to do it the hard way, it is easy for the unbelievable to occur.
Take sequestration, the annual, automatic cuts to federal budget authority established by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and its later amendments. When conceived and written into law during the debt-ceiling crisis that summer, sequestration was quickly embraced by both political parties as something so disagreeable, so “nightmarish,” that Congress would have to find a way to make sure the mindless cuts never would take effect.
After all, sequestration's nearly across-the-board cuts to non-entitlement programs was variously described as the budgetary equivalent of playing fully loaded Russian roulette. It was not so much that the government would be forced to spend less, but how: automatically, incessantly, robotically and equally, regardless of public priority or effect. Every program—and its constituents and congressional cheerleaders—would be affected and likely feel pain, so a “grand bargain” of spending cuts and revenue generators that addressed everything from taxes, Medicare and Social Security to the Pentagon was clearly, finally the answer.
That was then, this is now. Even with the recently enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, the so-called Ryan-Murray deal in December, political bargains remain elusive and Congress has been unable to agree to anything more than temporarily softening cuts through fiscal 2015, in exchange for more cuts later. Meanwhile, no single federal agency or congressional committee has prepared actual budgets to meet BCA spending caps—although that could change in coming months with the 2015 budget request—so the majority of sequestration's effects loom as an affront to existing plans for warfighting, spaceflight, air traffic control and every other federal responsibility.
Pentagon leaders have said the national security strategy, including the much-ballyhooed rebalancing of military forces to Asia-Pacific, would have to change to meet sequestration's long-term caps; andand insiders have acknowledged that their respective interplanetary missions and ATM upgrades would not be achievable.
At the same time, to meet spending caps, officials say they have to take deeply unpopular steps. These include retiring whole fleets of Air Force aircraft like the A-10, special mission reconnaissance and older aerial refueling tankers; cutting the Navy's carrier strike group surge capacity to one from three; shrinking the Army and going to tiered readiness of combat forces; and sacrificing new and betterweapons to pay for 100% readiness today. What's more, past and present defense officials of both parties keep calling for closing and consolidating domestic bases, as well as curbing compensation.
Consequently, for better and worse, sequestration and the accompanying gridlock in Washington, as shown by summer furloughs and the October government shutdown, have had the greatest impact on U.S. aviation, aerospace and defense since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The artificially created budgetary doomsday that was never supposed to happen now appears practically set in stone.
“I would have predicted we wouldn't be here,” laments retired Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, Jr., formerly the Air Force's top officer for hands-on budget-crafting and now assistant FAA administrator for the NextGen ATM overhaul. “You know, I'd have bet $1,000 this wouldn't have happened,” he said when sequestration first took hold in April.
Like any historical turn of events, the roots of sequestration and today's gridlock are many and varied. They include a constitutional republic whose three branches of U.S. government check each other, and at least two have to agree for proactive steps to occur. Moreover, one of those branches, Congress, essentially is a committee of as many 535 members, split into procedurally opposite chambers where the majority party in the House can ram through bills while a minority in the Senate—in fact, even just one senator—can stop them easily. Then there are the increasingly gerrymandered and partisan congressional districts from which lawmakers are elected, leading to increased polarization across Capitol Hill.
All of those impediments to political agreement can and have been overcome before due to a desire to make a deal. But arguably, what has made this time different has been a desire to disagree, and a civil war within the Republican Party pitting a wave of tea party newcomers against leaders and long-time, “established” legislators. On the one side were defense and foreign policy hawks who were accustomed to bringing home federal dollars, while the other side entailed—as one congressional worker and former industry lobbyist told Aviation Week—political neophytes largely unfamiliar with their district or state's federal dependency but determined and elected solely to rein-in Washington's perceived excesses.
The A&D sector need look no further than Alabama to see the mismatch in action. The state is one of its strongholds when it comes to aviation, military and space agencies and industry. On one hand is senior Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican appropriator in the upper chamber. The five-term senator has a solid conservative voting record, including opposing bailouts of U.S. auto companies during the financial crisis of 2008 and opposing majority Democrats' overall budget plans. But his ideology shows nuances when it comes to his constituents.
Shelby, also the top minority member on the spending subcommittee forspecifically, has helped secure programs like NASA's embattled Space Launch System (SLS) to the point it has been mocked as the “Shelby Launch System” by critics. In helping to craft the Senate Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2014 appropriations bill for NASA last July, for instance, he publicly praised it for providing funds to keep the heavy-lift SLS and space station going. True to his ideology, he voted against the bill in full committee, citing its adherence to Senate Democrats' budget blueprint. But he did so knowing the bill would move forward under Democratic rule assuming there was no filibuster, which neither Shelby nor anyone else provided.
By comparison, Republican Rep. Mo Brooks was first elected in the tea party wave of 2010 to represent Alabama's fifth district, home to “Rocket City USA” (Huntsville), with NASA'sand the nearby Army Aviation and Missile Command at the Redstone Arsenal. While Brooks is quick to prioritize “things that are productive, like science and exploration and NASA” over “welfare and giveaway programs,” it all comes after cutting federal spending and doing what it takes to make that happen, including enduring the consequences.
“No question, a government shutdown hampers the economy; no question, not raising the debt ceiling poses economic risk,” Brooks said during October's impasse. “No one knows for sure how much risk, because America has never crossed this threshold before. Whatever it is, it can be overcome.”
On purpose or by resignation, Washington remains both focused on and sclerotic about spending. History's judgment waits, but others are not hesitating. “Regrettably,” warns one of the sector's most influential voices, Aerospace Industries Association Chief Executive Marion Blakey, “at some point the excessive pursuit of fiscal austerity over and above all other national objectives will come back to haunt us.”