Lack of trust, transparency fraying lawmakers' ties to Pentagon

Tensions between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over sequestration is being inflamed by a growing sense of distrust among defense lawmakers toward the department. 

"It's trust and honesty that has been lacking" in the relationship between Congress and the Defense Department, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said in a speech on  Thursday. 

That lack of openness has created a severe disconnect on both sides of the Potomac on defense and national security issues, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) added during the same speech in Washington. 

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"I think that is a relationship that needs to change" sooner than later, especially in the wake of the massive, across-the-board budget cuts under sequestration, Kinzinger added. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

But frustration between defense lawmakers and military leaders over the department's fiscal forecasts amid shrinking DOD coffers have been festering, even before budget cuts under sequestration went into effect, according to Hunter. 

Numerous congressional requests for details on a wide range of defense issues, from cost estimates on big-ticket weapons programs to force projection levels in Asia, the Mideast and elsewhere, have gone unheeded. 

The fiscal uncertainty created by sequestration, has "exacerbated existing problems" between Capitol Hill and the department, Hunter said. 

"A wall has been put up between DOD and Congress," according to the California Republican. 

"We should not have to [play] a guessing game" with the Pentagon to come up with a defense spending levels, he added. 

The lawmakers' comments come days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pleaded for cooperation from Congress, to help the Pentagon cope with the fiscal fallout from sequestration. 

"We [need] Congress as a willing partner in making tough choices ... while meeting our responsibilities to our people," Hagel said last Tuesday. 

That partnership means lawmakers will have to weigh in on several hot-button defense spending issues, from "meaningful reform" to military pensions and benefits to acquiescing on Capitol Hill's long-standing opposition to military base closures and cancellations of prized weapon systems, he said. 

Hagel's comments represent a new tack by the Pentagon to persuade lawmakers to work with the department to cope with the effects of sequestration, rather than force Congress to come up with a viable alternative to the budget cuts. 

The highly-partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill has put any hope for a sequestration alternative out of Congress' reach, Hagel told reporters in October. 

But that cooperation is "a two-way street" Kinzinger said on Thursday, implying the Pentagon must be more transparent with Congress if it wants lawmakers' help. 

On Thursday, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale defended the department's ties with Capitol Hill. 

"I do not remember ... turning down" any request for information sent to the Pentagon by defense lawmakers, according to Hale. 

That said, top department officials are just as much in the dark as Congress regarding a number of issues, tied to the fiscal uncertainty brought on by sequestration. 

"Frankly we don't have the answers they are looking for ... [and] sometimes they don't like the answers that they are hearing," Hale said. 

"We are trying to be ready but we don't know what to be ready for," he added. 

Inside the Pentagon, department officials are already drafting their fiscal year 2015 budget plan, the department's first spending blueprint with sequestration cuts factored in.

That plan will coincide with the department's Quadrennial Defense Review, which this year will provide the overarching strategy for the U.S. military after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.