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Panetta Pledges ‘Fight’ For ‘Common Sense’ in Budget Talks

Posted by Colin Clark on

Washington: Lest there be any doubt, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the American public point blank today that Congress should raise taxes and cut entitlements instead of making more cuts to the defense budget.

This is clearly now the Pentagon’s official line: we have made significant cuts already. When America faces the terrorist threat, is waging two wars, must contend with Iran and North Korea and faces a tide of rising powers is not the time to press for Pentagon spending reductions above and beyond the $325 billion mandated in the Debt Relief Act.

Panetta, speaking at his first press conference as Defense Secretary, even went so far at one point as to appear to indicate he would resign if the Super Congress failed in its duty to find $1.5 trillion in cuts, making the Pentagon became subject to mandatory cuts of $50 billion to $60 billion a year. Asked by a reporter if he would quit should mandatory cuts occur, Panetta came out swinging. “I didn’t come to this job to quit. I came into this job to fight,” he said, adding that he would try to ensure that “common sense prevails” during the next four months of budget talks.

A substantial number of Democrats and a fairly small number of Tea Party sympathizers have called for cuts of up to $1 trillion to the defense budget, more than double what the Debt Relief Act and President Obama have said should come out of the Pentagon’s hide. They often point to the large proportion of the federal budget which defense comprises, and say there must be fat that can be trimmed.

Adm. Mike Mullen, not known for his penchant for pithy quotes, came up with a zinger to address such arguments. “The Defense Department may be 50 percent of discretionary spending but there’s nothing discretionary about what we do every day for our citizens,” Mullen said.

Panetta, an old congressional budget hand, noted that two-thirds of the federal budget is comprised of entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “Let me put my old budget hat on. You cannot deal with the deficit size by just cutting the discretionary part of the budget,” he said. The Super Congress “must look at revenues and entitlements…”

One of the most interesting comments from Mullen concerned Pentagon force structure, which many budgeteers say is the one area where the military could save big money by cutting the number of troops. Mullen said the increases in the Army and Marines to cope with Iraq and Afghanistan had not been very big by historic standards and he pointed to the 20,000 troops cut by the Air Force and 50,000 cut by the Navy. Although Mullen is on his way out, he does speak for the service chiefs and he would seem to be ruling out substantial force structure cuts.

For those in the defense industry who are already worried about their programs, they would have found little solace in today’s press conference. “I think programs that can’t meet schedule, that can’t meet cost their cost and schedule requirements are very much in jeopardy, and are very much under security as we go forward,” Mullen said. (Space programs — watch out!)

In other news, Panetta made clear he’s in lock step with predecessor Bob Gates when it comes to NATO countries doing more, even in tough budgetary times. He referred people to Gates’ now famous speech June 10 speech in Brussels where the former defense secretary said NATO is now a two-tiered alliance, with the U.S. doing the lion’s share of the work.

What do you think?