WASHINGTON – Chronic deadlock in Congress threatens to derail the US economy, damage national security and undermine public trust in its leaders, outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Wednesday.
In his last major policy address days before he retires, the Pentagon chief blasted lawmakers for what he called a lack of leadership that has produced escalating budget crises.
The most urgent task facing the country is to overcome “partisan dysfunction in Congress that poses a threat to our quality of life, to our national security, to our economy, to our ability to address the problems that confront this country,” said Panetta, who served as a lawmaker from California before holding senior posts under two Democratic presidents.
“Today, crisis drives policy,” he told students at Georgetown University in the US capital. “It has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse and then react to the crisis.”
But inaction is costly, he warned.
“The price to be paid is that you lose the trust of the American people. You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of this nation to be able to govern itself.”
Panetta’s tough speech comes as Congress faces a March 1 deadline to broker a budget deal to avert multi-billion dollar budget cuts, with military funding due to take a major hit.
The Pentagon chief, who served as CIA director before taking over as defense secretary in 2011, renewed his warning that if Congress fails to break the impasse, automatic budget cuts will jeopardize the military’s readiness and force cuts in training, maintenance and weapons programs.
Panetta’s frustration with the current bitter political climate was evident as he frequently strayed from his prepared text to drive home his point, lamenting that lawmakers apparently no longer knew how to compromise.
“I’ve seen that attitude before,” he said, recalling his days in Bill Clinton’s White House, when Republican lawmakers helped force a government shutdown in 1995 which “badly hurt the American people.”
“The same damn thing is going to happen again if they allow this to occur,” Panetta said.
The looming threat of automatic defense cuts of roughly $50 billion this fiscal year, along with Congress’s failure to adopt a proposed Pentagon budget for 2013, has forced the Defense Department to start laying off thousands of temporary workers while cancelling some maintenance.
The automatic cuts, or sequestration, were designed to be so dramatic that the prospect of so much pain would force lawmakers to cut a deal.
But instead, Panetta said, there are some members of Congress who have a “callous attitude” and are using the automatic cuts for tactical gain.