Congress “is on the clock” and has critical work to accomplish when the House and Senate come back into session after the Nov. 6 election, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said in Washington, D.C., Oct. 25.
During a Pentagon news conference today, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the need for lawmakers to act.
First on the list is averting sequestration before it takes effect Jan. 2, Panetta said. Unless Congress decides on an alternative by that date, a sequestration provision in budget law requires an additional $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade, on top of a $487 billion spending reduction already in effect for that period.
“There are only 70 days until that happens, and Congress is certainly on the clock when it comes to that potential sequestration occurring,” the secretary said.
The secretary said he also wants Congress to pass the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill. “I’d like them to pass a … defense appropriations bill, too, but in the very least, we really do need a defense authorization bill so that we can continue to implement our new defense strategy,” he said.
The secretary also stressed the need for Congress to act on a cybersecurity bill. “We really do need strong cybersecurity legislation to ensure that we can help defend the nation against a cyberattack,” he said. This was the second time in two weeks that Panetta has stressed the need for this legislation, again warning of the growing threat of a cyberattack on the nation’s infastructure.
Finally, Panetta called on the Senate to act quickly on the nominations of Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen to be the next commander of U.S. European Command and to become NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and for Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. to replace Allen as commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
“This is a full agenda,” the secretary said. “It’s one that requires Democrats and Republicans to work together. And after a tough national election, the American people, I think, will expect both parties to roll up their sleeves, work together to solve the problems facing the nation, and to protect our national security.”
Congress’s failure to approve a fiscal 2013 budget is causing problems way down the line for the Defense Department, Panetta said. “We’re developing a [fiscal] 2014 budget that to some extent … is not based on what Congress has done, because they haven’t done it,” the secretary said. “We don’t know what the 2013 budget is going to be.” The department is operating on a continuing resolution through March 2013 in lieu of a budget for the whole fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
Panetta said Pentagon officials don’t know what they can spend for fiscal 2013, let alone fiscal 2014. “This is a strategic issue: it’s ‘What kind of stability am I going to have in terms of defense spending for the future?’” he said.
Noting that the department still is cutting almost $500 billion from the defense budget over the next decade, Panetta said that to do so smartly requires some certainty.
“For us to be able to make the kind of strategic choices we need to make, I have to have some stability with regards to where are we going from here,” he said. “And I don’t have that right now, and frankly, that’s a major concern.”