Panetta: Don’t balance budget ‘on the back’ of the military

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Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned Tuesday that the federal budget cannot be “balanced on the back” of the military and that additional Pentagon cuts would be “a threat to national security.”

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee, Mr. Panetta said the Pentagon would do its part to help reduce the federal deficit, by cutting planned spending by $484 billion over the next 10 years.

But Mr. Panetta, a former senior White House budget official and a former member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, stressed that, to close the $1.1 trillion annual federal budget deficit, every kind of government spending — and revenue increases through tax hikes — would also have to be on the table.

“No budget can be balanced on the back of defense spending alone,” said Mr. Panetta, “For that matter, no budget can be balanced on the back of discretionary spending alone.”

Discretionary spending refers to that portion of federal expenditure that is set each year by Congress, as opposed to the automatic mandatory spending every year on entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare.

“Real deficit reduction only happens when everything is on the table — discretionary [spending], mandatory spending, and revenues,” Mr. Panetta said.

The planned spending reductions in the administration’s new defense budget would result in a “smaller, leaner” force, he said.

“But at the same time it should be agile, it should be flexible, it should be ready, and it should be technologically advanced,” he added.

Nonetheless, Mr. Panetta acknowledged, “I can’t reduce the [defense] budget by half-a-trillion dollars and, frankly, not increase risks” to national security.

“Bottom line is we think these are acceptable risks,” he added.

Mr. Panetta also warned about the impact of the cuts on senators’ home states.

“There is no way I can reduce the defense budget by a half-a-trillion dollars and not have it impact on all 50 states. That’s a reality,” he said, referring to the likely closure of military bases and cuts to defense contractors’ programs.

He urged senators not to try to tamper with the defense budget to preserve home-state programs or other favored projects.

“As you know, this committee in particular, this is a zero-sum game,” he said.

Restoring cuts to some programs would mean larger reductions in other areas, Mr. Panetta said, adding that “there’s a very narrow margin here for mistakes.”

Both Mr. Panetta, and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated earlier warnings that additional cuts, on top of the half-trillion already proposed, would be damaging.

Mr. Panetta called the sequester — an across the board defense cut of $535 billion triggered by Congress‘ failure to agree a deficit reduction plan last year — a “meat ax” that would fall on the military.

He agreed the sequestration cuts — which Congress is struggling to avoid imposing — would be “a threat to national security.”

“We hear you,” said committee Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat.

But he warned that there would likely have to be further reductions in planned defense spending, even if Congress can avoid sequestration cuts.

“I don’t think that, at the end of the day, there’s going to be any alternative,” Mr. Conrad said.

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