Today Defense Secretary Leon Panetta charged Congress with putting national security at risk by "lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis" in a downward spiral of political gamesmanship aimed at partisan gain.
"My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude developing among some Republicans and Democrats alike that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences," Panetta said.
At the same time, Panetta applauded President Obama's recent request to postpone the March 1 deadline for the $1 trillion ($500 billion for defense) in spending cuts known as "sequestration" in return for modest spending cuts and tax reforms.
Panetta derided the Congressional impulse to ‘kick the can down the road" on various budget deadlines but said he supported Obama's action in urging Congress "to at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms to delay sequestration until a permanent solution is developed."
In a Georgetown University speech Panetta hit on familiar themes from his two years as Defense Secretary in warning that massive across-the-board cuts would lead to a "hollow" military and devastate training and readiness.
He made no mention of the Pentagon's plan to extend new benefits to the spouses of gay military personnel, including housing and commissary privileges.
The extension of gay rights in the military, including the scrapping of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, along with the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for women, would form two of the mainstays of Panetta's legacy as the top civilian leader of the Pentagon.
The 74-year-old Panetta was expected to retire to his walnut farm and the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterrey, Calif., as early as next week if former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is confirmed by the Senate as his successor.
In what was likely to be his final trip to Capitol Hill, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on Thursday on the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In his Georgetown speech, Panetta outlined what he described as "perhaps the most urgent task facing the nation – and that is overcoming the partisan dysfunction in Congress that poses a threat to our quality of life, our national security, our economy, and our ability to address the problems confronting the nation."
"It has become too politically convenient to allow crisis to drive the issues," said Panetta, who served 16 years in the House as a Democrat. "When the crisis gets bad enough, both parties are forced to respond to it. It's a good way to avoid making tough decisions, because you can blame the crisis for forcing you to do what you have to do."
"But there is a real price to be paid for this approach," Panetta said. "You lose the trust of the American people and you create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the credibility of the nation."
"I don't think you have to choose between protecting our national security and protecting our fiscal security," Panetta said.
Panetta said he came to office with a deal in place to cut $487 billion from defense over 10 years. The deal was workable with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the smaller and leaner military planned under Obama's national defense strategy, Panetta said.
But the entire plan would be undermined by the $500 billion in additional cuts that would come with sequestration, Panetta said.
"If Congress doesn't act and the Department is forced to operate under year-long sequestration and a year-long continuing resolution, we would have to abruptly absorb $46 billion in spending reductions and face a $35 billion shortfall in operating funds for our active forces," Panetta said.
The immediate results would be the loss of about 46,000 defense jobs and 22-day furloughs going out to 800,000 DoD civilian personnel, Panetta said.
"This is not a way to govern," Panetta said. "This budgetary crisis creates uncertainty, it creates doubt and distraction for the men and women who put their lives on the line for us, and it puts at risk our fundamental mission of protecting the American people. And worst of all, it is a self-made crisis."