HASC Leader: Government Shutdown Bad for Defense, But 'Some Pain' Is OK
As major portions of the federal government officially shut down Tuesday, defense officials and national security experts are sounding alarms about political dysfunction causing irreversible damage to U.S. credibility as a military power.
The government shut down Oct. 1 after Congress failed to come to an agreement to fund operations.
“How big of a deal is this” for national security? asked Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Thornberry, a defense hawk who generally supports military spending, said the armed services and defense industry have to understand that they are just sacrificial pawns in Washington’s partisan warfare.
Asked how much damage the shutdown might inflict on national security, Thornberry said that depends on how long it lasts and what comes out of it.
“It's OK to go through some pain for a while,” Thornberry said Oct. 1 at a CQ Roll Call conference near Capitol Hill. A period of unpleasant disruptions may be necessary if that is what it takes to solve budget clashes over sequestration and entitlement reforms, he said.
“The country does not need to be showing weakness,” said Thornberry. But that could happen if the current crisis does not get resolved within a reasonable period, he added.
The current impasse over the Affordable Care Act should not be interpreted as a sign that defense is no longer a concern on Capitol Hill, said Thornberry. “I would not reach that conclusion.”
The upcoming fight over the debt limit could present an opportunity to reverse sequestration, he said. That would require a broader deal that should cut entitlement programs, he said. Defense makes up just 17 percent of all federal spending, and Congress has so far failed to tackle the entitlement programs that eat up most of the budget, Thornberry noted. “This has to be fixed.”
The sequester discussion has been “muted … because we're waiting for the debt limit to debate the allocations,” he said. He would support ending sequester cuts for defense and nondefense agencies if reductions are made in entitlement spending, he said.
The shutdown, meanwhile, has outraged national security experts and veterans groups.
“This is the first time we are shutting down the government when the military is at war,” said former Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a U.S. Army veteran.
Even though the military continues to be paid under the shutdown, veterans will experience significant disruptions in benefits and medical treatment, he said Sept. 30 during a conference call with reporters.
Michael Breen, an Army veteran and executive director of the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy, said he worries about the long-term effect the shutdown will have on the United States’ role as a superpower.
“This is a uncontrolled experiment,” he said of the shutdown. “We don't know how it's going to go down.” The budget crisis is “raising questions about who we are going to be as a world leader,” he said. “How can we be a world leader if we can't keep the lights on here at home? … I wonder what the Chinese and the Iranians are thinking right now.”
Another Army veteran who runs the left-leaning VoteVets.org, Jon Soltz, said he expects considerable backlash against the Republican Party from veterans.
“It's up to the veterans’ community to attack politicians that do things that are detrimental to troops,” he said. “Until the vets’ community holds accountable politicians who treat them poorly, they are going to continue to do these things.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, senior adviser at the National Security Network, was a brigade commander in 1995 during the last government shutdown. “I lived through this when I commanded a brigade prepared to go into Bosnia,” he said. “It was completely screwed up. … It disrupted our training schedule. Uncertainty kept us in a constant state of turmoil.”
Beyond the immediate inconveniences of a shutdown are more significant ramifications, as troops see the nation’s leaders engaged in “petty squabble over paying bills,” said Eaton. “Troops deployed are looking to make sure that somebody has their back,” he said. “Troops are right to be concerned.”
Speaking to reporters en route to South Korea Sept. 30, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel blamed Congress for its “astoundingly irresponsible way to govern.” He said the current impasse is undermining U.S. credibility with allies. “I would hope that we would have enough members of Congress find some common ground to govern and at least make the big decisions in the larger interest of this country.”