By Ernesto Londoño
The Defense Department on Thursday welcomed back thousands of civilians furloughed during the government shutdown as senior officials acknowledged that they are now planning for a degree of fiscal retrenchment that the Pentagon has long sought to avoid.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on Congress to restore predictability to defense funding cycles. He said the use of stopgap appropriations bills to keep the federal government funded is imperiling U.S. security.
“If this fiscal uncertainty continues, it will have an impact on our economy, our national security and America’s standing in the world,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.
Hagel and Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale reiterated the department’s position that the budget-slashing mechanism known as sequestration, which mandates across-the-board cuts, is reckless. But their remarks conveyed a growing sense of resignation about the Pentagon’s fiscal future.
“We have to plan and prepare with the facts as they are and the realities as they are,” said Hagel, who noted that sequestration remains the “law of the land.”
In the spring, the Obama administration proposed a $526.5 billion defense budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, operating under the assumption that sequestration would be eliminated. Now, Hale said, service chiefs are being asked to plan to spend considerably less than what was requested in the spring. For the Pentagon, that means finding $52 billion in cuts in its proposed budget for the current fiscal year.
“I think all of us are aware that it will be a somewhat different, smaller military if we have to go through with those cuts,” Hale said. “We will be as prepared as we can, within the limits of time that we have, to be ready for a wide range of contingencies, because we know that’s what we face.”
Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert who worked in the Clinton administration, said the Pentagon has been slow to realize that Congress and the White House are unlikely to replace sequestration with a more deliberate approach to deficit reduction.
“Sequestration has set a new baseline for defense spending,” he said.
Having failed to jolt lawmakers into action with dire predictions about the effect the cuts are having on the military, Adams said, Pentagon chiefs are “closer to the acceptance level of grief.”
Hagel called the political fight that triggered the 16-day shutdown a “manufactured crisis” that resulted in “an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from our critical work of keeping the country safe.”
The shutdown cost the Defense Department at least $600 million in lost productivity, took a huge toll on morale in the department, the nation’s largest employer, and raised questions about U.S. dependability, officials said.
“Our allies are asking questions: ‘Can we rely on our partnership with America?’ ‘Will America fulfill its commitments and its promises?’ ” Hagel said. “These are huge issues for all of us, and they do impact our national security and our relationships and our standing in the world.”