Take cover. Sound the klaxons. Scramble underground.
A Near-Earth Object is on a collision course with the United States.
The consequences are said to be catastrophic.
This cosmic terror could explode above the Earth’s surface, venting a 300 kiloton shockwave and destroying everything in its path. However, there’s a chance it could glide harmlessly by, 17,000 miles away in outer space.
In the 1998 film “Deep Impact,” scientists detected a massive comet on a glidepath toward Earth. They dispatch astronauts to try to detonate the comet. But that only makes things worse. The explosion cleaves the comet, creating two massive objects hurtling toward the surface.
Washington has tracked the current Near-Earth Object threat since August, 2011. Like in “Deep Impact,” a special team rushed to avert the pending disaster – but failed spectacularly. There was a successful effort to nudge the object away a few weeks ago. But that only delayed its arrival until March 1.
This Near-Earth Object isn’t known by the scientifically stoic moniker of “2012 AD14” like the asteroid that buzzed the Earth the other day.
This is simply called the sequester.
“Most people don’t know what that word means,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “What it means to the American people is unemployment. No jobs. Take us to recession. It’s not quite an exact Latin translation. But that’s what it means.”
The sequester is a set of mandatory, across-the-board spending cuts set to hit all government programs in less than two weeks. As a part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) Congress approved to raise the debt ceiling, the sequester would slash $1.2 trillion in spending over a decade. Lawmakers of both parties want to trim spending. But they’d much prefer an agreement on targeted spending reductions.
That was the role of the supercommittee, the crack team of lawmakers which tried unsuccessfully to quash the sequester in the fall of 2011.
So the U.S. is left with a fiscal Near-Earth Object somersaulting toward the nation’s frail economy at supersonic speed. Lawmakers can always concoct some sort of a pecuniary death-ray to pulverize the sequester so it doesn’t extinguish life as we know it. But both houses of Congress are now out of session for a week. So nothing will happen on that front until the end of the month. Instead, lawmakers and other officials spent a lot of time the past few days pointing fingers at each other as to who is to blame if the sequester craters the U.S. in March.
On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee called together the military’s service chiefs and other officials to explore the consequences of the sequester. Due to the structure of the BCA, the Pentagon would absorb a higher percentage of arbitrary, automatic spending cuts than other federal departments and agencies. Military officials expressed concern about their ability to handle emerging threats if the sequester is in place. In addition, the Pentagon may have to lay off hundreds of thousands of civilian employees.
The U.S. military is renowned for planning for every possible contingency and scenario. But Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) challenged the brass for not anticipating the sequester and only issuing memos about it recently. Forbes pointed out that it had been 560 days since President Obama signed the BCA and 447 since the supercommittee stumbled. Forbes directed his first query at Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno.
“Was it a mistake to wait that long to do the planning and communicate to the American people the impacts that we would have from sequestration?” asked Forbes.
“We made a decision in the Department of Defense, which we agreed with, that we would wait on planning,” replied Odierno. “And frankly, that’s because we never thought it would be executed.”
Forbes continued his line of questioning to the other officials, finally declaring that the military told him they wouldn’t plan for the sequester because “you can’t plan for chaos.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter jumped in.
“Planning isn’t the problem. Never has been the problem. The problem was doing something,” Carter said.
For weeks now, lawmakers of both parties lobbed brickbats at each other as to who is to blame for the sequester. Republicans heaved press release after press release out the door, noting that in his book “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward wrote that the Obama Administration proposed the sequester. Meantime, Democrats paraded around the fact that 174 House Republicans voted for the sequester in the BCA. They also exhumed a 2011 interview House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) did with CBS just after Congress okayed the BCA.
“I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy,” said Boehner at the time.
But rather than blame Congress or the administration, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) took a different tact at the Armed Services Committee hearing. He directed his fire at the military’s top leadership.
“You guys helped caused this as well. You are part of the problem,” excoriated Bishop. “The silence that was coming from the military establishment did not help in actually presenting to the American people what this means. I’m sorry to say this, but you own some of that responsibility. You bear some of that burden along with us.”
Bishop’s charge was too much for Carter.
“Mr., Chairman, I just need to respond to that,” said Carter, leaning forward in his seat toward the microphone and staring daggers at Bishop. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the consequences of sequester are. It cuts every account, one by one. You could see it all coming. So it’s not something that is mysterious.”
Carter was now under Bishop’s skin.
“I’m sorry, that answer is not acceptable,” scolded Bishop. “You were not vigilant on this early enough.”
The carping was too much for Rep. Bill Enyart (D-IL), a newcomer to Congress and the former senior member of the Illinois National Guard.
“As a member of the freshman class, I’m frankly appalled at the questioning that you have endured today,” said Enyart to the service chiefs. “I want to apologize to you for that political blame-game that you’ve sat through this morning.”
Later the same day, a grumpy Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who served 16 years in Congress, spoke to reporters in what he hoped would be his last formal meeting with the scribes. It wasn’t Panetta’s last session though. That’s because the Senate exacerbated his frustration by filibustering the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as his successor.
“Oftentimes, I feel like I don’t have a full partnership with my former colleagues on the Hill in trying to do what’s right for this country,” fumed Panetta. “We can’t just sit here and bitch. We can’t just sit here and complain. We just can’t sit here and blame others. We just can’t sit here and point fingers at each other. We can’t just sit here and try to get soundbytes. We can’t just sit here and try to make political points.”
Panetta went on to say that some dealings with the legislative branch had become “too personal” and “too mean.”
But it’s not just the Pentagon that faces major spending cuts. Democrats point out the sequester threatens education, Alzheimer’s and cancer research, food safety inspections, border control, infrastructure, air traffic control and a host of other areas.
“The people that are paying their dues or their obeisance to the tea party should be isolated and the rational people on both sides of the aisle should work together and get this done,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
A few hours after the meteor exploded over Russia and just before 2012 DA14 whizzed by Earth, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) described how NASA and other agencies would have had no way to detect either of these galactic bodies fifty years ago.
“We should continue to invest in systems that identify threatening asteroids and develop contingencies, if needed, to change the course of an asteroid,” Smith declared.
Of course, money for those efforts also fall under the sequester meat chopper.
Even so, Congress years ago launched the “George E. Brown Near-Earth Object Survey Act.” Named after the late-House Science Committee Chairman George Brown (D-CA), the study traces such objects and even recommends methods to nudge asteroids out of Earth’s orbit, incinerate them or detonate them with nuclear weapons, ala the crew in “Deep Impact.”
But for now, the sequester races toward the U.S., its contrail streaking across the fiscal sky. Even though the Near-Earth Object Survey Act offers proposals to eliminate an asteroid that threatens the planet, no such system exists.
Such is the case with the sequester. Both the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike have proposed alternatives to the sequester. The GOP-led House even okayed measures to alter the sequester last year. Still, nothing is law.
Time is short with the sequester bearing down.. So for now, the U.S. is a sitting duck, awaiting deep impact.