Wanted: ‘Adult’ leaders to fend off sequestration

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others blast political culture that allows the threat of automatic cuts to continue. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others blast political culture that allows the threat of automatic cuts to continue. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

The inability of lawmakers to head off the looming threat of automatic budget cuts is a crisis that already is harming agencies and cries out for “adult” leaders to put patriotism over party, a prestigious panel of ex-government officials said Monday.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman retired Adm. Mike Mullen joined with former budget office directors and senators who served on the major fiscal commissions to blast a political culture in Congress that has allowed the “suicide pact” sequestration to continue on the horizon through election season.

Only some expressed optimism that a solution soon will be found, among them former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who said serious behind-the-scenes talk for a large budget deal are in progress.

“The longer we delay dealing with our fiscal problems, the more painful and risky it will be to national security,” the retired Gates told the second panel in a series on the fiscal crisis sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Concord Coalition, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and other groups. “It requires the political class to show leadership and make decisions that are unpopular in the short run but will strengthen the country for the long haul.”

In a frank critique that would have been unlikely while he was in office, Gates explained why he thinks the government has lost the ability to solve basic problems. He cited highly gerrymandered congressional districts that produce candidates beholden to a hard-core ideological base; “wave” elections in which the winning party is “seized with convictions of its rightness;” the decline of congressional power brokers, or committee chairpersons who can make and enforce deals; and a 24-7 digital media environment in which “extreme ideological opinions are coarsening and dumbing down discourse.”

The political center that historically achieved such bipartisan breakthroughs as the Marshall Plan and NATO “is not holding,” Gates continued. The inability of politicians to step outside their “ideological cocoon,” in which “moderation means lacking principles and compromise means selling out,” has prevented the best ideas from being implemented across administrations, he said.

Mullen stressed the national debt is the gravest threat the United States faces. Unless the country addresses “the abundant disorder” in its fiscal affairs, “we cannot hope to sustain our superiority from a military perspective or from the perspective of our influence in foreign affairs,” he said. One need only look at the current anti-U.S. violence in Arab countries to see that “our commitments and requirements abroad will continue,” Mullen added. “The time to do something is shorter than we think, and if we kick the can down the road, we will soon find that the can will not budge.”

Because of impending sequestration, comptrollers inside the Pentagon “are already pulling back and not spending money until 2013,” Mullen said. And because military personnel are exempt, most of the cuts to the defense budget would fall on operations and maintenance, training and logistics, he said, adding contract timelines also would have to be renegotiated, costing more in the long run.

Though they agreed the Pentagon must do its share in deficit reduction, Gates and Mullen said the defense budget already has been cut by $900 billion over 10 years. They gave two examples of Congress’ resistance to savings -- a proposed scaling back of the F-22 fighter jet and proposed increases in TRICARE health insurance premiums paid by military retirees. In both instances, Congress voted according to “parochial” interests, under pressure from interests such as veterans groups, they said.

If sequestration kicks in, Gates said, “pilots will spend less time in the cockpit, soldiers will spend less time training and with fewer bullets, and ships will stay in port, all of which risk lives.”

Mullen said, “I’m not as hopeful as others that we won’t drive off that cliff.” He and Gates agreed that Congress and the president would have to “tell us what you want us to stop doing.”

Veterans of the two fiscal commissions gave the panel, chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., a mixture of optimistic and pessimistic prospects for heading off fiscal disaster. “I’m really worried if we can’t get Republicans and Democrats to put partisanship aside for the deepest crisis in history, that the deficit will grow within the country like a cancer,” said businessman Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who co-chaired the recent fiscal commission with former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. “The real challenges are not waste, fraud and abuse, or Nancy Pelosi’s airplane,” Bowles said, but five big issues: health care, defense, the Tax Code, Social Security and interest on the national debt.

Domenici expressed confidence the budget stalemate could be solved “without doing wild things like what happened in Greece.” During this November-December lame duck session, he said, the chatter is Democrats and Republicans in both chambers will work on a “fast-track” plan with the force of law that prevents filibusters but gives authorizing committees clear goals. “The major House and Senate Democrats and Republicans are just as worried as we are,” he said.

His partner in leading another fiscal commission, former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, also was upbeat. “Both commissions proved that Republicans and Democrats can work together to gradually and sensibly slow the growth of debt while avoiding stalling economic growth,” she said. The components of a deal must include entitlement reform, which is hard on Democrats; tax reform that raises revenue, which is hard on Republicans; and spending cuts in both defense and domestic areas, which are hard on everybody, Rivlin said. “Health care is a hot-button issue, but the parties are not as far apart as everybody thinks.”

Simpson said the key will be to “clear out the underbrush of Grover Norquist,” the anti-tax activist who “since the 1980s has been wandering the earth in white robes getting people to sign something when they haven’t even heard the debate.” He also would “take on” the AARP, the giant retirees organization that actually supports some entitlement reforms, Simpson said, but won’t say so because they’re “marketers” more than “patriots.”

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