Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers that the Pentagon would begin planning for the potential automatic spending cuts that would come with sequestration this summer if Congress does not act before then.
Speaking at a Feb. 29 House Budget Committee hearing, Panetta said the Pentagon was not doing any planning now for additional defense cuts, with the hopes that Congress would work out a larger deficit-reduction plan that would replace a sequester.
“It’s the law, but it doesn’t come until January 2013,” Panetta said. “I think it’s totally irresponsible for the Congress to allow it.”
In August, lawmakers passed the Budget Control Act that raised America’s borrowing limit on condition that $2.1 trillion be cut from the nation’s debt. The first half of that would come from spending caps imposed on discretionary spending over the next decade, including an estimated $487 billion from the Pentagon over the 10-year period.
If Congress fails to raise the remaining $1.2 trillion, automatic spending cuts would start in January 2013, including an additional $500 billion cut automatically from DoD.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., described the cuts in the Pentagon’s 2013 budget request as “arbitrary.”
Far from random, the $525 billion DoD base budget is designed to fit within the Budget Control Act’s cap on security spending.
That law sets security spending at $686 billion for 2013. That pot of money has to cover funding for the Defense Department as well as the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Pentagon is also asking for an additional $88.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, which are not subject to the Budget Control Act’s spending caps.
More than one lawmaker asked Panetta why the Pentagon had not yet begun planning for sequestration.
“There is not a hell of a lot of planning I can do,” because sequestration makes automatic and equally distributed cuts across DoD accounts, using a “meat-axe” approach, he said.
The measure was designed to be “so insane” to first force the congressional super-committee to act and, if that failed, then to drive Congress to action, Panetta said. Sequestration was not meant to actually take place, he added.
Rep. Timothy Huelskamp, R-Kansas, asked Panetta whether he was just hoping that sequestration would never happen.
“I would hope that you would hope that that would never happen,” Panetta said.
The committee’s Democratic ranking member Rep. Chris Van Hollen said that Democrats had offered Republicans a choice on sequestration: further defense cuts or closing tax loopholes. According to Van Hollen, Republicans chose defense as the sequestration threat instead of automatic tax increases.
As Panetta makes his rounds on Capitol Hill, he continues to draw on his own congressional experience and his participation in the budget battles of the late 1980s and 1990s.
Panetta served on the House Budget Committee for over a decade, including four years as its chairman.
He said Congress went through many of today’s budget debates back then and eventually both parties were willing to compromise to reach a deal.
The difference between now and then: the much larger size of the country’s deficit.
Panetta said he did not think he would see a deficit of this size in his lifetime.