Rumsfeld, who had an often contentious relationship with lawmakers during his tumultuous time as Pentagon chief, warned committee members about the dangers of assigning any specific amount in cuts to the defense budget before completing a review of the department's strategy and priorities.
"The first responsibility of government is to protect the American people," Rumsfeld told National Journal after the meeting. "It's important to have priorities and a strategy and know what you would like to do and then fund against those priorities and those strategies."
Doing so, he said, would allow the military to weigh risks before being tasked to trim a certain amount from its budget. Rumsfeld did not provide any advice on where to cut, admitting at the outset of the meeting that he is out of date with the military's current spending priorities, said House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif.
Rumsfeld oversaw the Pentagon during a period of historic budget growth fueled by two wars and the desire to modernize the military's aging equipment. But the military's budget, considered off limits for cuts during the last decade, is now one of many targets for deficit reduction.
The Defense Department is in the middle of a review to determine how to trim the $350 billion officials have already been ordered to cut from the Pentagon budget over the next decade. The so-called Super Committee could opt to slash more from defense accounts as they work on a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. If they fail, they will trigger an automatic $500 billion cut to the Pentagon budget.
Rumsfeld met Monday with an audience of like-minded Republican lawmakers, many of whom have spoken out publicly against further defense cuts. But some of his comments underscored statements made recently by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California who served as President Clinton's budget director and, later, as his chief of staff.
The two men's politics may differ, but they are in agreement on one thing: Mandatory spending like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is the primary cause for the country's fiscal woes.
"Pay attention to the two-thirds of the federal budget that is in large measure responsible for the size of the debt that we're dealing with," Panetta told reporters during a news conference at the Pentagon last month.
Rumsfeld echoed those remarks after his meeting on the Hill, stressing that there has been significant growth in spending on entitlement programs. The Defense Department's base budget, not including the wars, has roughly doubled over the last 10 years, but defense hawks argue that its share of the overall federal budget is decreasing.
"The thing that worries me most is that people talk about the defense budget as though that's where the deficits and the debt have incurred," Rumsfeld said. "You could wipe out the entire defense budget and not solve the debt problem."