Gates, Mullen slam Congress, call on lawmakers to act like 'adults' on budget

Two former top officials in the Pentagon slammed Washington on Monday for its inability to grapple with the budget and debt problems facing the country, calling on “adults” to come back to Washington after the election in order to compromise.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen delivered a stinging indictment of Washington politics — and in particular Congress — during an event on national security and the debt Monday, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Bipartisan Policy Center.

Gates and Mullen echoed warnings from their successors in the Pentagon that the sequestration cuts to defense would be devastating and lead to a hollow force, as they pleaded for more compromise in a political atmosphere that has become hyper-partisan.

“The inability of so many political leaders today to step outside their ideological cocoons or offend their most partisan supporters has become the real threat to America’s future,” said Gates, who was speaking at the event via satellite.

“Too many politicians are concerned about winning elections and scoring ideological points than saving the country,” he said. “My hope is following the presidential election, whatever adults remain in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put the country back in order.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are opposed to the sequestration cuts, which would reduce the Pentagon budget as well as domestic spending by $55 billion in 2013 and nearly $500 billion in the next decade. But the two sides have been deadlocked since the congressional supercommittee failed last year to find a solution to fix the problem, and there have not been any proposals that received bipartisan support.

At the same time, both sides are using the cuts to attack one another in the election — including Mitt Romney and President Obama.

The former Pentagon leaders did not exclude the administration from their criticisms, but their ire was primarily directed at Congress.

Gates said that Congress had failed to rise above its “parochial interests” and blamed gerrymandering, wave elections and the loss of deal-making committee chairmen as some of the biggest problems plaguing Washington.

While American politics has always been “a shrill and ugly business,” Gates said, “we have now lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government” due to polarizing trends.

Gates lamented that nothing seemed to get done without a gun to lawmakers’ heads, which was the purpose behind the across-the-board sequestration cuts in the first place.

Mullen said that individual lawmakers want to get things done, but that collectively the “leadership piece of this” in Congress has prevented things from being properly executed. He spoke of his inability for years to get Congress to agree to small health fee increases despite spiraling costs.

Mullen also sounded a particularly pessimistic tone on the ability of Washington to avert the sequestration cuts.

“I’m not as hopeful as others that we won’t drive off this cliff,” Mullen said. “I’m worried sick about it, quite frankly.”