Panetta Slams Senate Deal for Failing to Deal With Defense Cuts

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rails against the Senate budget deal. Josh Rogin reports.

The deal struck by Senate leaders is just one more example of America being governed by crisis, not leadership, and fails to address the serious negative impacts of the sequestration policy, according to former Defense secretary and Congressional budget committee chairman Leon Panetta.

The deal, which could end the government shutdown but also cements the cuts to the Defense Department under the sequestration policy, is a positive but incomplete step toward ending a “shameful and tragic period in our American history,” Panetta said Wednesday at a press conference organized by the nonpartisan advocacy group Fix the Debt. But now, the administration and senate leaders must push for a budget conference that works towards undoing sequestration, he said, or America could face a period of national decline.

“The fundamental challenge that faced [Senate leaders] was to do what’s necessary to end the government shutdown and to extend the debt limit…A fight could have been done on sequester,” Panetta said. “They made a choice. My hope is that once you get into a budget conference and once you get into the bigger issues…that the decisions you make will not only help in terms of debt reduction an putting this country on the right path towards ending the deficit, but also will end sequester.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) praised the fact that the cuts under the sequester, passed by Congress and signed by the president under the Budget Control Act of 2011, were preserved as a victory for Republicans in the recent debate over shutting down the government and moving toward a default on American debt.

“For today, the relief we hope for is to reopen the government, avoid default and protect the historic cuts we achieved under the Budget Control Act,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Panetta said McConnell was just trying to save face and that a fight over undoing the sequester cuts for the military was coming.

“You’re going to hear over the next few days everybody taking credit for what they won and lost. But there are no winners and losers in this process. The American people lost. And now they need to roll up their sleeves and do what’s right for this country,” he said.

The Republican party is split over whether or not to accept the sequester cuts—which amount to $600 billion less for the military over 10 years as compared to previous projections of military spending—or to fight to reinstitute the original funding plans. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that the sequester cuts were never meant to be policy but were conceived as a threat to force Congress to reach a broader budget deal.

Congress has so far failed to agree on a comprehensive plan to guide federal discretionary spending over the mid- to long term, and Panetta said that this failure if continued would precipitate a period of national decline in the world.

“We are at a turning point in the United States of America. We can either be an America in renaissance… or we can be a country in decline, if we continue to be dysfunctional in terms of how we govern this country and if we continue to operate by crisis after crisis after crisis. What path we take is largely going to be determined by how we govern ourselves,” he said.

Without mentioning the administration or the White House directly, Panetta implied that the administration must do more to engage Congress and avoid similar crises in the future, a note he has struck before.

“If leadership is there we can avoid crisis, but they’ve got to be willing to take the risks associate with leadership. If leadership is not there make no mistake about it we will operate by crisis and crisis will drive policy. You could do that but there is a price to be paid and that price is that you lose the trust of the American people in our government,” he said.

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Congress has failed to learn the lessons of previous shutdowns, including the 1996 shutdown which occurred when Panetta was White House Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton.

“You don’t take a step that hurts innocent American people by shutting the government down. That makes no sense, to use that weapon against your own constituents. The combination of this sequester and this shutdown has hurt our national defense,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that what has happened has been not the result of an economic crisis, not the result of war, but the result of a self-inflicted wound by people who swear they will do everything to protect and defend this country.”