Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, left, and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs chairman, testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. (Mike Morones / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, two top Pentagon officials pleaded for cooperation with Congress in order to solve ongoing budget challenges — something that seems unlikely, given comments from leading committee members.
Ashton Carter, deputy defense secretary, and Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the committee to discuss the recently completed assessment of automatic spending cuts on the military, dubbed the Strategic Choices and Management Review.
“The formal SCMR process is now complete, and its findings are sobering,” Carter said in his opening statement. “We hope we will never have to make the most difficult choices that would be required if the sequestration-level budgetary caps persist. But the SCMR has formulated and framed these kinds of choices for us, and now we are ready if confronted with this scenario.
“Along with budgetary stability, we need time to make changes strategically,” Carter concluded. “And we need the support of Congress to make budget cuts in a managerially sensible way. We need a return to normal budgeting and a deal that the president can sign.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said he welcomed “the report and what is seeks to achieve.” And like Carter, he shared hopes that damage from sequestration can be altered, or at least contained, by strategic thinking.
“There is agreement on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Potomac that these cuts embolden our enemies and jeopardize U.S. national security,” he said in his opening statement. “We often talk of risk, but I hope that today we will have a frank discussion about how this funding profile for defense limits the ability of this country to protect our national security interests.”
But what was supposed to be a hearing on the report’s findings quickly turned into a repeat of the same partisan disagreements that have been a hallmark of congressional hearings during the Obama administration.
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., quickly blamed sequestration on what he characterized as President Obama’s refusal to work with Congress. He also hit the president for directing the SCMR to follow along with the administration’s strategic goals, a line of attack that was echoed by a number of other Republicans during their speeches.
In response, Washington state Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the panel, shot back that Forbes was showing an “interesting selective amnesia. The reason for sequestration was because of the House Republicans refusal to raise the debt ceiling.”
Rather than admonishing his colleague for the statement, McKeon pointed out that Congress has acted in such a “dysfunctional” way that no one sitting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff has undergone a regular budget cycle while in their current jobs.
“Probably half of the Congress does not know what regular order is like,” McKeon said. “We’ve become pretty dysfunctional as a Congress. It’s unfortunate, and at some point we need to get our act together.”
Other members fell into the familiar patter of past hearings, expressing concern for the impact of furloughs on workers and the dangers of cuts to the overall national security before leaving immediately after using their allotted time. Specifics — especially related to the SCMR, the nominal reasons for the hearing — were scarce.
Almost two hours into the hearing, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., acknowledged the light attendance at the hearing and admonished his colleagues for not taking the challenges to the Pentagon more seriously.
“I hope more members of Congress will pay attention to the extraordinary upheaval going on in the DoD right now as a result of our own actions,” Cooper said. “This is a self-inflicted wound and Congress needs to pay much, much better attention. We on this side need to be doing a much better job.”