Sequestration Is ‘Not a Game’

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta foresees dire national security consequences if automatic across-the-board budget cuts take effect next week.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivers his speech to Georgetown University students and faculty on leadership and public service in Washington, Wednesday, February 6, 2013. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivers his speech to Georgetown University students and faculty on leadership and public service in Washington, Wednesday, February 6, 2013. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will soon return to his home in central California and turn the Pentagon leadership over to his yet-to-be-confirmed successor. But the outgoing secretary’s last words of warning on budget sequestration to leaders in Washington have big implications—not just for the men and women serving in the armed forces of the United States but also for our friends and foes in foreign capitals around the world who are watching our every move in this budget crisis.

In early February the Pentagon announced that pending budget uncertainty would delay the deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman, an aircraft carrier, and the USS Gettysburg, a guided missile cruiser, to the Central Command areas of responsibility in the Middle East. Automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration—as well as the expiration of current continuing appropriations authority for fiscal year 2013—have a direct impact on America’s security at a time of uncertainty in the Middle East. While the U.S. Navy has pledged to keep the ships on high levels of alert, the decision to delay deployment was a visible sign that sequestration and continuing appropriations uncertainty hurts military readiness.

While the Pentagon was quick to point out that U.S. forces would continue to maintain a robust military presence throughout the Middle East, the budget impasse challenges the normal and routine process of rotating and replacing U.S. forces on a regular basis and disrupts military training.

On February 6, in remarks he made at Georgetown University, Secretary Panetta warned Congress about sequestration, saying:

This is not a game. This is reality. These steps would seriously damage the fragile American economy, and they would degrade our ability to respond to crisis precisely at a time of rising instability across the globe—North Africa to the straits of Hormuz, from Syria to North Korea. … This is no way to govern the United States of America.

These are sobering words of warning—words that point out how our national security interests are suffering because we are, as Secretary Panetta said earlier this month, “lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis.”

Secretary Panetta departs Washington as one of the most respected government practitioners of his generation. His service includes time spent as an officer in the U.S. Army; as a member of the House of Representatives, including as chair of the Budget Committee; as director of the Office of Management and Budget; as White House chief of staff; and, after a brief break spent at his home in Carmel, California, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Finally, in 2011 he became secretary of defense.

His resume is impressive on every level, but two noticeable nonpartisan achievements stand out.

The first spans his time as house budget chairman to his time as director of the Office of Management and Budget to his time as White House chief of staff—a period during which he was integral to the strategy and architecture of several budget agreements that produced a balanced budget and surplus during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Key to going from deficits to balanced budgets in just a decade were a series of agreements that moved in incremental but significant steps: spending limits in 1987; the Andrews Summit in 1990; the Deficit Reduction Act in 1993; and bipartisan agreements reached on spending targets and revenue levels in 1995 and 1996.

Secretary Panetta’s second standout achievement came during his tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency: his recommendation to President Barack Obama to launch the mission against Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

These were all significant accomplishments for the country. The balancing of the budget in 1998 and the killing of bin Laden in 2011 are among the most momentous national security accomplishments since the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Secretary Panetta has a perspective that is unique and a track record that shows how to create bipartisan solutions. Clearly, what he has to say is important. He said the following in his remarks to Georgetown University:

My greatest concern today is that we are putting our national security at risk by lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis. … I was nominated to be the 23rd secretary of defense, based on my own experience dealing with budget issues as chairman of the House Budget Committee. I was director of the Office of Management and Budget. I knew very well the Department of Defense had a responsibility to be able to do its part in dealing with the fiscal crisis in this country.

Every budget summit that I had been a part of in the Reagan years, in the first Bush years, during the Clinton administration—every budget summit, we knew that defense had to play a role in trying to be able to control our deficits. Soon after I became secretary, I was handed a number of $487 billion, almost a half-trillion dollars, that I was to cut out of the defense budget. It was contained in the Budget Control Act, and I was required to be able to get that number of savings over the next 10 years.

After a decade of blank-check spending in the Department of Defense it was important to us, the leaders of the department, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service chiefs, the service secretaries and myself, who strongly believe that we had to meet this challenge of reducing the defense budget. But we have to do it in a way that did not simply hollow out the force.

While budget cuts at the Pentagon are expected as U.S. troops continue to return to their home bases after a decade of military conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Secretary Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff took the necessary budget reductions as part of an integrated strategic and budget review. That review leveraged military and technological capabilities that include unprecedented interservice collaboration, cooperation, integration, and resource investments. The guidance provided by that review is designed to ensure continued U.S. advantage against emerging modern military and technological challenges.

But the planning that went into the strategic budget review is at risk because of the sequester, cautioned Secretary Panetta during his speech at Georgetown University:

My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude that is developing among some Republicans and some Democrats, that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences. This is a kind of “so what?” attitude that says, “Let’s see how bad it can get in order to have the other party blink.”

Thus, the warning that budget sequestration is “not a game”—and, in fact, that, “This is reality.”

As the United States rebalances its defense priorities and the Pentagon’s spending practices, more hard and thoughtful work will be required. Military requirements for new equipment have become so cumbersome that upgrades to the field have slowed to a trickle even while costs have escalated to a level that is neither practical nor affordable. The all-volunteer force—the bedrock of the U.S. armed forces—has seen a decade of cost growth that has weakened its long-term viability. And operations and maintenance spending—so critical to high levels of unit training and readiness, quality of life, and troop morale—are escalating at annual rates beyond any measure of inflation.

Finding answers to these questions will be vital to long-term U.S. security interests and will require smart moves to rebalance the defense budget after more than a dozen years of unconstrained spending. These issues, however, will not be resolved through budget sequestration.

Meanwhile, as Washington continues on a track of incessant political turbulence—with six-month temporary appropriations resolutions—the sense in foreign capitals is one of confusion. Other countries have mounting questions about America’s ability to perform its business when its elected leaders can’t even agree on a budget.

Last week Secretary Panetta’s deputy at the Pentagon, Ash Carter, testified before the Senate that the failure to turn off the sequestration mechanism could demonstrate to allies and enemies alike that the United States lacks critical resolve.

“The world is watching us,” Carter said during his testimony. “Our friends and our enemies are watching us … and they need to know that we have the political will to forestall sequestration.”

Even with the looming sequester, the United States remains the most formidable military power in the world, and deployed troops will continue to receive the critical resources that they need. But unless our leaders in Washington resolve our short- and long-term budget issues, our Navy cannot sail, and the training levels of our troops will continue to be reduced.

The necessary readiness of U.S. armed forces, along with Secretary Panetta’s declaration that sequestration “is not a game,” should spur Washington policymakers to find a practical budget solution and avoid sequestration.

Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow