Congress adopted the "fiscal cliff" strategy in the Budget Control Act of 2011 after a supercommittee failed to come to agreement on a deficit reduction plan. As a result, Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire Dec. 31 and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts spread over a decade kick in, half of them in defense spending, the so-called "sequestration."
The federal budget went from surpluses at the end of the Clinton administration to $1 trillion deficits now as a result of the tax cuts enacted during George W. Bush's tenure, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recession, as well as increases in entitlement programs. The national debt has soared to more than $16 trillion, a situation both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney labeled a national security threat -- perhaps the biggest national security threat -- during their foreign policy debate last week.
A survey released by First Command Financial Services indicates members of the military are fearful the divisions in Congress are too deep to avert sequestration. The First Command Financial Behaviors Index found two thirds of middle-class military families are worried about the possibility of involuntary separation, which is seen as a serious financial threat, given about 90 percent of respondents had hoped to qualify for traditional military retirement after 20 years of service.
The index also indicated respondents don't think much of either presidential candidate's leadership skills, although those who are most pessimistic about sequestration give Romney slightly higher marks, with 63 percent preferring him to Obama, compared to members of the general population, who put the candidates within a point of each other (Romney 46 percent versus 45 percent for Obama).
The survey of 530 consumers ages 25 to 70 with annual household incomes of at least $50,000 was conducted in September and has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
"Members of the military don't believe sequestration will be averted," said Scott Spiker, chief executive officer of First Command Financial Services. "The president cannot speak for Congress, nor can Governor Romney."
During Monday's debate, Romney said sequestration would gut the military, reducing the number of naval vessels available, shrinking the Air Force and taking away the ability for the U.S. military to fight on two fronts simultaneously.
"[Sequestration] will not happen," Obama insisted, adding the reductions already included in his budget streamline the military into the fighting force the United States needs for the future.
"I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works," Obama said. "You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed."
A day later, Obama told editors of The Des Moines (Iowa) Register: "It will probably be messy. It won't be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain."
"Jawboning by the president, period," Spiker said in reaction to the remarks. "It comes down to Democrats saying they're not going to go along with any tax appeasement. If the Republicans give in, the Democrats will give in on sequestration. That impasse is not solved by the president's rhetoric.
"These are pretty hardscrabble issues. The sequestration issue remains important. Everything I've seen tells me comments by the president and Romney did not calm the fears the military has about the potential sequestration."
Spiker said the effects of defense spending cuts already are being felt with the realignment of military bases both domestically and abroad, reductions in the number of career servicemen, who make up a sixth of the force, reductions in the number of personnel receiving promotions, and changes in retirement benefits and healthcare.
"The real question is the degree of additional cuts if sequestration goes through," Spiker said.
"Our society needs to understand sequestration ... has diminished the confidence of those in the career force. Having served myself ... if you're 10 or 12 years into a career -- and we have the most deployed force in history; they've sacrificed more, given and given and given for more than 10 years -- they may not have the opportunity to fulfill their retirement opportunities and they're worried."
Spiker said the sequestration strategy means solving the problem of growing entitlements that "affect our entire society" on the backs of "the very few and they have been serving at great personal cost for over the last decade."