The chasm between Republicans, Democrats, and the military over defense-spending cuts was on full display on Thursday as key lawmakers in separate events accused each other and senior U.S. military leaders of deceit and dishonesty over deficit-reduction posturing and what is required for national security.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed senior U.S. military commanders were dishonest in presenting Congress a budget request he thinks they don't really want.
"We don't think the generals are giving us their true advice," Ryan said at the National Journal Live budget policy summit at the Newseum, adding, “I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget.”
At the same time, House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith of Washington blasted Republicans for deploying a “divide and conquer” strategy to protect defense budget interests.
Smith also accused his committee and Congress writ large of endangering national security with a “head in the sand” strategy to delay making tough decisions on deficit spending before the November elections and before sequester kick-starts $600 billion in defense cuts at the end of the year.
“If we don’t confront mandatory spending and revenue, then the discretionary portion of the budget is going to get hammered. And defense is over half of the discretionary budget, which again means if you care about defense spending and national security, you have to care about fixing the larger debt and deficit problem,” Smith argued, in a blistering keynote address at the RAND Corporation, a government-funded national-security think tank, in Pentagon City, Va.
Ryan's frank rebuke of the generals came as he repeated an oft-heard Republican complaint: that the fiscal 2013 defense request -- which is strongly endorsed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- was not "strategy-driven," but rather was based on an artificial spending cap imposed by the White House.
Pentagon press secretary George Little bristled at Ryan's remark, saying, "The secretary of Defense has been very clear with the military leadership in this department that they should provide independent military advice and be as straightforward as possible with members of Congress. That is a solemn obligation; we value Congress's oversight role, and the secretary expects honest, straightforward input from our military leadership, and he believes that is precisely what they do on a regular basis, time and time again."
House Budget Committee spokesman Connor Sweeney later attempted to clarify Ryan’s remarks in an e-mail, saying, “Chairman Ryan believes the integrity of our generals and admirals is unimpeachable. They serve our country with distinction and unparalleled honor.” Sweeney claimed “an inconsistency” between the strategy and budget military leaders “have been given by the White House.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, en route to Washington from Latin America, said he didn’t think Ryan accused him of lying but rejected his strategy-first criticism, according the Associated Press. “I stand by my testimony…We started with a strategy. We mapped it to a budget. It’s just the first step.”
Smith, following his speech, told National Journal, “Calling our senior generals and admirals, like General Dempsey, liars is totally out of bounds. You may not agree with everything they say, but accusing them of bowing to political pressure and lying to Congress about national security is an insult to them and the brave men and women they command on behalf of our grateful nation. Paul Ryan should apologize, and if he won't, Speaker [John] Boehner and Republican leadership should condemn Ryan's remarks."
During his speech, Smith countered the strategy-first complaint, saying, “That strikes me as insane, because every single decision we all make is driven by the budget … we don’t have an infinite amount of money, you have to consider the budget when you’re putting together a strategy.”
The chiefs, in testimony and public remarks since early February, have already deflected the complaint. Privately, senior military officials in the Pentagon say spending cuts have been expected for years and there is no sense the budget was imposed on the military by Democrats in the White House.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, last month told defense reporters, “I am 100 percent on board with the strategy. No question [the closing decade of war] required a reset.”
“We also had to deal with the Budget Control Act,” he argued. “I mean, it’s a fact of life. Would it have been simpler and perhaps less painful had our economic circumstances as a country been different? Of course. But the reality is we’ve got trillion-dollar deficits and DOD’s going to play in this.”
As members head into recess, few prognosticators venture to guess how the U.S. will avoid the year-end automatic sequestration cuts to defense spending that nearly all parties fear, but most do not expect an easy resolution until the short window between the election and the new year.
Ryan, in his fiscal 2013 budget, proposed replacing just the first year of the 10-year penalty with unspecified savings from mandatory programs.
That proposal was based on a bill originally introduced by Smith’s counterpart, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. But critics have said the measure -- and a similar offering from Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., and backed by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Cornyn, R-Texas -- is a dead-on-arrival offering, leaving defense stakeholders from the Pentagon to industry leaders and Capitol Hill wondering when party leaders will address the larger deficit deal.
Smith’s Thursday speech, one aide said, was directed at Democratic leadership as well.
“It needs to happen as soon as it can happen,” Smith argued. “I think any talk of, ‘Well, we’ve got to wait until the election’ -- that’s highly irresponsible. This problem is now, and I think we’ve got to start driving home that point.”
He called his committee to task as well, arguing, “We are responsible for national-security matters, and the debt and deficit are national-security matters. It is a national-security issue that we are studiously ignoring.... We are not confronting the challenge that is in front of us.” Smith crticized the committee for fighting “program by program, tax cut by tax cut, making the case for why we cannot touch any of these things."
“This is a crisis. And a crisis changes the equation,” Smith argued. “…You are going to have to make some decisions that you’d rather not make. And what we’re doing right now is sticking our fingers in our ears and going, ‘Nyeah, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to hear it.’ "