Secretary Hagel blasts Congress for defense spending cuts

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 5, 2013 

— Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sharply criticized lawmakers Tuesday for imposing spending reductions on the Pentagon that he warned risk having serious impacts on military power.

Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska who’s the highest-ranking Republican in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, said his department had absorbed $500 million in forced funding cuts under the congressionally mandated sequestration system, plus $487 billion in reductions that were part of a 2011 deal to raise the federal debt ceiling.

“These cuts are too fast, too much, too abrupt and too irresponsible,” Hagel said in an address to a national security forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Hagel also criticized lawmakers for the temporary funding measure they passed last month – called a “continuing resolution” – to end the partial government shutdown that Republicans forced in a failed bid to eliminate funding for Obama’s signature health insurance law.

“We are operating under a continuing resolution which continues to present DOD with one of its most difficult challenges: certainty,” Hagel said. “DOD cannot responsibly, efficiently and effectively plan, strategize and implement national security policies with this cloud of uncertainty continuing to hang over it.”

After a monthlong impasse, Congress and Obama reached an accord in August 2011 that increased the debt limit, as the president wanted, in exchange for almost $1 trillion in spending cuts pushed by Republicans, about half of which hit the Pentagon.

That deal set up a bipartisan “super committee” of senators and representatives to find more reductions. It included a provision setting a sequestration deadline of Jan. 2, 2013 – later pushed back to March 1 – for sweeping cuts to take effect if the panel failed to identify more targeted reductions.

When the super committee imploded last year, sequestration – which both the White House and Congress had agreed to – took effect, imposing an additional $500 million in cuts on the Pentagon.

More recently, in the wake of another budget dispute between Democrats and Republicans, Congress reopened the government last month after a 16-day partial shutdown by agreeing to raise the debt ceiling again and to fund the government at its current levels through Jan. 15.

Hagel and other heads of major federal agencies have protested the across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration and the stopgap budgets in a series of short-term funding measures.

“Today we face the danger that our current budget crisis – and the steep, abrupt and deep cuts imposed by sequestration – will cause an unnecessary, strategically unsound and dangerous degradation in military readiness and capability,” Hagel told the audience of defense analysts and other military experts Tuesday.

Left unsaid in his address was that Pentagon funding had nearly doubled in the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, peaking at $739 billion in 2011 before starting to fall to its current annual level of about $615 billion.

Even as he criticized the impact of budget cuts, Hagel acknowledged that the United States still spends 40 percent of combined global military funding.

And while citing Obama’s goal of “moving the nation off a perpetual war footing” with the withdrawal from Iraq and the wind-down of involvement in Afghanistan, Hagel warned against isolationist tendencies in Washington and beyond.

“After more than a decade of costly, controversial and at times open-ended war, America is redefining its role in the world,” he said. “At the same time, more Americans, including elected officials, are growing skeptical about our country’s foreign engagements and responsibilities. But only looking inward is just as deadly a trap as hubris.”

Email: jrosen@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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