U.S. Defense Secretary warns of degraded military readiness from spending cuts
POSTED: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 1:15pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 1:19pm
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Furloughed workers, reduced combat readiness, shrunken naval operations and cuts to Air Force flying hours and weapons maintenance.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listed those consequences as he provided a stark warning Wednesday about the effects of impending budget cuts on the military. The result, he said, would be "the most serious readiness crisis" faced by the military in over a decade.
Panetta's address at Georgetown University in Washington, which he called "hopefully one of my last speeches as secretary of defense," included the first details of how the Pentagon would deal with the automatic spending cuts -- or sequestration in congressional jargon -- set to trigger March 1.
For the Department of Defense, sequestration means $46 billion in spending cuts this year, which would result in "a serious disruption in defense programs and a sharp decline in our military readiness," Panetta said.
"There are no good options" to deal with the situation, he continued, saying 46,000 department jobs would be at risk and more damaging measures in coming months could include:
-- Furloughing as many as 800,000 civilian workers for up to 22 days;
-- Cutting back on Army training and maintenance, which would reduce readiness of combat brigades outside Afghanistan;
-- Shrinking naval operations; and,
-- Reducing Air Force flying hours and weapons systems maintenance.
"This is not a game. This is reality," Panetta said, his voice rising. "These steps would seriously damage a fragile American economy and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe."
His comments sought to increase pressure on Republicans and Democrats to reach agreement on deficit-reduction steps, thereby avoiding the across-the-board spending cuts of sequestration that were part of a 2011 deal that raised the federal debt ceiling.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for a short-term deal to put off the cuts so Congress could continue work on a permanent fix that provides desired reductions in the federal deficit.
Obama made clear that he still wants a broader deficit-reduction agreement with Republicans that includes spending cuts, entitlement reforms and increased revenue from eliminating some tax breaks.
However, Obama said, with time running out before the sequestration cuts slash government spending and result in job losses and economic slowdown, Congress should pass a temporary fix that would allow time for further negotiations on a broader plan.
"Our economy right now is headed in the right direction and it will stay that way as long as there aren't any more self-inflicted wounds coming out of Washington," he said. "So let's keep on chipping away at this problem together, as Democrats and Republicans, to give our workers and our businesses the support that they need to thrive in the weeks and months ahead."
In response, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused Obama and Democrats of avoiding needed spending cuts and trying put off tough decisions instead of facing their responsibilities as elected leaders.
"At some point, Washington has to deal with its spending problem," Boehner told reporters Wednesday. "I've watched them kick this can down the road for 22 years. I've had enough of it. It's time to act."
He also echoed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in saying that further deficit-reduction steps should focus on spending cuts and reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, rejecting Obama's call for including more tax revenue in the mix.
In the 2011 debt ceiling deal that ended a showdown over whether to increase the federal government's borrowing limit to meet its obligations, Congress and the White House agreed to include the automatic spending cuts of sequestration as motivation to pass a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan.
Deep partisan divisions prevented such an agreement from happening in 2012, an election year. Initially the cuts were to go into effect on January 2, but the government delayed the impact of sequestration for the first two months of 2013.
In his speech, Panetta referred to what he described as "partisan dysfunction in Congress" that he said threatens the quality of life and national security of the nation.
Instead of making tough decisions to resolve problems, political leaders from both parties let issues become crises that require immediate but insufficient responses, he said.
"It's the easy way out," Panetta said, adding that there is a price to be paid for such an approach.
"You lose the trust of the American people," he said. "You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of the nation."
Referring specifically to sequestration, he said: "There isn't anybody I've talked to on Capitol Hill that doesn't think this is crazy."
Obama said Tuesday that he still supports a broader deficit deal and made clear that revenue from tax reform measures previously agreed to by Republicans -- such as eliminating some loopholes to increase revenue for the government -- should be part of it.
However, he noted that it is unlikely Congress will reach a deficit-reduction deal by March 1 to render the sequestration cuts moot.
"If they can't get a bigger package done by the time the sequester is scheduled to go into effect, then I believe that they should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months until Congress finds a way to replace these cuts with a smarter solution," Obama said.
Boehner reacted to news of Obama's plan by saying it was the president who "first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law."
Reiterating the longstanding position of Republicans in budget negotiations, Boehner called for replacing the sequester plan with spending cuts and reforms -- a reference to changes in entitlement programs.
A last-second agreement in the previous Congress that passed in the first days of 2013 raised tax rates on top income earners as part of a limited deficit-reduction package.
That measure followed weeks of tough negotiations involving Obama and Congress in which other steps to increase government revenue, such as eliminating some tax breaks for corporations, were considered but not included in the final deal.
Obama and Democrats now want such revenue-raising steps to be part of a package that would replace the mandated deficit reduction of the sequester cuts.
McConnell expressed his opposition to such a move Tuesday, saying, "The American people will not support more tax hikes in place of the meaningful spending reductions both parties already agreed to and the president signed into law."
Federal spending cuts under sequestration total more than $1 trillion over 10 years, half of which would come from the Pentagon.
Obama's push to avoid those cuts comes a week before he outlines his second-term agenda in the State of the Union address.
Congress, which authorizes federal spending, has failed to pass detailed annual budgets in recent years due to partisan gridlock over spending and debt, as well as electoral politics.
Instead, it has approved a series of extensions of past spending authorizations -- called continuing resolutions -- to keep the government funded.
Temporarily extending the sequester deadline would follow a similar move by congressional Republicans last month on raising the nation's debt ceiling. That deal put off further wrangling on the federal borrowing limit until mid-May.
Some analysts warn that Washington's fiscal paralysis harms the nation's fragile economy and could bring another recession.