Ex-defense secretary: Budget compromise not 'selling out'

Ex-defense secretary: Budget compromise not 'selling out'

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates slammed Congress on Wednesday for the way it has approaching budgeting over the last decade – and this year in particular – but said if he were still in charge he would take money regardless of which fund it’s put in.

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“My approach on that as secretary was take every dollar I can get where I can get it,” Gates said during his first testimony on Capitol Hill since stepping down as defense secretary in 2011. “In the in current paralyzed state, maybe there’s no alternative right now to getting money this way.”

Gates was referring to a fight between President Obama and congressional Republicans over this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Obama has threatened to veto the bill because it adds $38 billion to a war fund not subject to budget caps.

Obama argues that it irresponsibly skirts budget caps and wants lawmakers to lift them on spending across the board. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said he agrees with Obama and encourages a veto.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, again questioned using the war fund.

“As a means of funding defense on a long term basis, in your view is that an adequate approach or should we raise the regular budget caps,” he asked Gates.

Gates agreed putting the money in the war fund is a “gimmick” and a “terrible way to budget.” But he said he doesn’t see an alternative way at this point to get the funding the Defense Department needs.

Gates was testifying before the committee to provide his suggestions for reforming the Defense Department and cut waste. Reforms won’t be effective, Gates said, unless Congress returns to a normal budgeting process.

In the last decade, an appropriations bill has only passed by the beginning of the fiscal year twice, Gates said.

Starting the year on a continuing resolution actually costs the department money, Gates said. The same goes for sequestration and government shutdowns, he added.

That’s because, he said, programs can’t be started on schedule, savings can’t be found by making multi-year purchases and man-hours have to be spent to plan for the uncertainties.

“Given the harm all this politically driven madness inflicts on the U.S. military, the rhetoric coming from members of Congress about looking out for our men and women in uniform rings very hollow to me,” he said. “Our system of government, as designed by the founders who wrote and negotiated the provisions of the Constitution, is dependent on compromise to function. To do so is not selling out. It’s called governing.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the committee, called Gates’ assessment “damning but accurate.”

He also criticized his Democratic colleagues on the committee for supporting Obama’s veto threat of the NDAA, reiterating his stance that the NDAA is about policy not appropriations.

“It’s a policy bill,” McCain said. “I’m sorry to say that members of this committee will be voting to sustain a presidential veto on an issue that we have nothing that we can change.”