The Sequester, the Pentagon, and the Little Campaign that Could

Part of New America's Strange Bedfellows Series
Policy Paper
Sept. 29, 2015

Today, New America’s Political Reform Program released the second in a series of papers from the New Models of Policy Change Project examining how “strange bedfellows” coalition building between the most liberal Democrats and conservative or libertarian Republicans is shaking up policymaking across the country. In “The Sequester, the Pentagon, and the Little Campaign that Could” author John T. Bennett examines the unlikely political coalition that helped secure a drop in defense spending steeper than any since the end of the Korean War—and that has stymied every effort to lift sequestration since.

A unique political shift caused by the advent of Tea Party conservatives enabled this unexpected change in spending through the automatic federal budget cuts known as the “sequester.” The cuts—and especially their undiscriminating approach to reducing military outlays—have proven unexpectedly durable. Carefully nurtured, behind-the-scenes cooperation between liberals and Tea Party conservatives does much to explain why.

“Once groups on the left and right sides of the aisle realized they shared the same goal of reduced defense spending, the door was opened to building an unlikely—but effective—alliance,” said report author John Bennett. “Building trust between diverse groups is key to finding sustainable policy solutions.”

Bennett identifies three lasting results of transpartisanship in defense spending:

  • Defense spending is rising, as workarounds to sequestration emerge; but the baseline from which defense planners must work has been fundamentally altered. from a very different baseline than envisioned by Secretary Robert Gates in 2009.
  • Future advocates of the kind of military buildup the U.S. experienced in the years after 9/11 will face a larger and more politicized opposition, suggesting that the future cycle of military spending may look more like the sharp ups and downs of the WWII and Korean War period.
  • The Pentagon budget coalition will foster further collaboration, and already has, from Syria to surveillance to prison reform—and recruited new partners, extending informal networks well beyond the formal list of groups that made up the Pentagon Budget Campaign. Indeed, it identifies an important axis in American security politics that challenges both political parties.

The report forms part of a “Strange Bedfellows” paper series, led by the New Models of Policy Change Project in New America’s Political Reform Program. The series examines how new policy ideas emerge from unlikely corners of the right or left, and find allies on the other side who may come to the same idea from very different worldviews—a “transpartisan” approach. The successes, failures and key figures of this transpartisan approach to policy change will be explored over four case studies in criminal justice reform, Pentagon spending reduction, climate change and “climate care,” and opposition to Common Core education standards.

View the full report here.