Defense-minded lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated their warnings about sequestration’s harm to the military are falling on deaf ears.
The aggravation was on full display in the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday when the committee brought in the military service chiefs to detail the impact of the cuts next year.
The chiefs once again said Thursday that sequestration would lead to an untrained, hollow force that’s unfit to fight.
They warned the cuts could cost lives in future wars in response to a question from Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the panel who requested Thursday’s hearing.
But lawmakers expressed a sense of resignation that the message wasn’t being heard beyond Armed Services Committee rooms.
“I wish that every member of Congress and every American were tuning into your testimony today so we would have a sense of urgency that unfortunately is certainly not significant enough to bring us back into, I think, a rational approach to our nation’s defense,” said Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFather of slain Navy SEAL wants investigation A stronger NATO for a safer world Drug importation won't save dollars or lives MORE (R-Ariz.).
"It is my concern that everything you said is true, but the general public is just not aware of it and the crisis that we're facing right now," Inhofe said to the service chiefs.
“I'm frustrated that this committee has once again asked you to come up here and testify about the harm caused by sequestration,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) told the chiefs. “We in the Congress created this monster and we keep dragging you up to the Hill to have you tell us how much damage it has done.”
Added Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.): “I feel ashamed to have you come back here again and again and again to tell us the same thing, and not see us doing anything about it."
Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services panels have been fighting to reverse sequestration since it was set in motion in 2011 by the Budget Control Act.
The danger of cutting defense spending, however, has been overshadowed by the battles in Congress over taxes and entitlement spending. Most Democrats and Republicans want to undo the sequester, but disagreements over how to replace the cuts have prevented the two parties from reaching any sort of “grand bargain” that could undo sequester.
The Pentagon’s budget was cut $37 billion in 2013 due to sequestration, and the department’s proposed 2014 budget faces a $52 billion cut if the automatic cuts are not reversed.
After questioning the chiefs Thursday, McCain said the hearing was important, even if it wasn’t convincing his colleagues in the Capitol.
Asked whether anyone else in Congress was listening, McCain said: “I don’t think so.”
“They’re not only not paying attention to that, but they’re not paying attention to what goes on in the world,” McCain said. “People are focused on domestic issues, they’re focused on ObamaCare, they’re focused on unemployment, the continued stagnation in our economy.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinA package proposal for repatriation Silencing of Warren another example of hyperpartisan Senate GOP going nuclear over Gorsuch might destroy filibuster forever MORE (D-Mich.) said the House-Senate budget committee created in the deal to end the government shutdown was the best chance Congress had to try to reverse the cuts.
The committee, led by the House and Senate Budget Committee leaders, is supposed to come up with deal by December.
“The successful conclusion of the budget conference between the Senate and the House is essential if we're going to address the problem of sequestration,” Levin said Thursday.
“They are hopefully looking at various alternatives for getting rid of a mindless, irrational way of budgeting for 2014, the way it was for 2013, but much is going to ride on their success in finding a different approach to deficit reduction.”
Sequestration-related amendments, including giving the Pentagon more flexibility to address cuts, are also likely to be submitted to the defense authorization bill that will be on the Senate floor later this month.
While much of the talk Thursday was about Congress needing to fix the sequester, some Republicans cast blame on the White House for not pushing harder to reverse the cuts.
“I’ve not sensed the same level of alarm coming from the White House that I’ve sensed from you,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said to the service chiefs.
“If the administration did think this situation is as dire as you are explaining to us, I’d expect to see those set of issues receive a lot more time and energy from our commander in chief.”
The warnings from the chiefs were certainly dire, just as they have been at previous hearings.
“We are headed towards a force in not too many years that will be hollow back home and not ready to deploy. And if they do deploy, they will enter harm's way, we'll end up with more casualties,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said once again that the reductions from sequestration would make it difficult for the Army to conduct even one major combat operation.
“I do not consider myself an alarmist,” Odierno said. “I consider myself a realist.”