Panetta answers harsh criticism of defense budget in Senate
WASHINGTON — Accept a smaller but finely tuned Defense Department budget proposal essentially as constructed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Congress on Tuesday. But members seemed unlikely to go along.
Squaring congressionally mandated budget cuts with strategic aims had been difficult, Panetta said, but DOD officials are confident that next year’s proposed $614 billion budget — and planned spending reductions of $487 billion over a decade — still allow for effective national defense.
Among the concessions to a smaller budget, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee, are fewer troops, smaller fleets of ships and aircraft, delayed or canceled procurements, and pay and benefits changes.
“This is a zero-sum game,” he told the committee a day after the Pentagon released details of the proposed fiscal 2013 budget. “There is no free money here. The need to balance competing strategic objectives is taking place in a resource-constrained environment.”
The prospect of the Obama administration’s defense budget proposal moving unimpeded through Congress seemed close to nil on Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attacked both the budget process and the motivation behind it. Instead of addressing waste and mismanagement in the Pentagon, he said, DOD leaders are cutting troops, planes and ships, all of which he deemed necessary, given continuing global threats and the recently announced strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“Respectfully, this doesn’t add up,” McCain said. “Unfortunately, this defense budget continues the administration’s habit of putting short-term political considerations over our long-term national security interests.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said that while Panetta was only carrying out his duties under the law in cutting the defense budget, the DOD is bearing the brunt of years of financial irresponsibility throughout the government.
“As I look at what you’ve had to do to meet the bottom line requirements of the Budget Control Act, it represents, in my opinion, unacceptable risk to our national security,” he said.
Panetta said DOD has a part to play in budget cutting, and Congress needs to take seriously the threat of uncontrolled spending.
“We have tried to step up to the plate and do our duty here,” he said. “In weighing how you address this issue, you’ve also got to take into consideration the national security threat that comes from the huge deficits and the huge debt that we’re running.”
When asked, Panetta essentially threw the threat of sequestration — and potential cuts of over $1 trillion if Congress doesn’t find a way to further cut the budget — back in legislators’ laps.
Panetta has said the current U.S. defense strategy can’t be carried out under such a drastically reduced budget.
“Our approach was to not pay any attention to it,” he said. “If it’s going to take place in January 2013 ... then it’s going to take place under its mindless procedure.”
On the question of additional rounds of base closings, which DOD recommended Congress study in the budget, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the department should look to bases overseas before considering cuts within the United States.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., warned Panetta and Dempsey that Congress wouldn’t go along with new rounds of base closings, which increase short-term costs and eliminate defense infrastructure that Inhofe says is still needed.
“This is supposed to be our No. 1 concern up here, defending the country,” Inhofe said.