Defense Secretaries always “try to get out of Washington and visit as many of our bases and talk to as many of our people” as they can, as Sec. Chuck Hagel said this week at Kings Bay submarine base in Georgia. But when you’re SecDef, you always take Washington with you. Physically, that means the entourage of one general, one admiral, and myriad lesser aides, bodyguards, and even ragtag reporters (e.g. me) that accompanies the Secretary almost everywhere he goes except the bathroom. Politically, it means every word the Secretary says is said with Washington much in mind.
So on this week’s trip to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, Hagel hammered on the theme of budget cuts at every stop — and, at every stop, the Secretary carefully put the responsibility on Congress to roll back the automatic cuts known as sequestration.
“What the Congress has been doing, in not accepting any of our recommendations in our budget this year, is making it more difficult for us,” Hagel told soldiers at Fort Rucker, Ala. on Thursday afternoon. The “recommendations” in question are controversial cost-saving measures affecting every service — such as semi-mothballing 11 Navy cruisers, stripping the Army National Guard of its Apache attack helicopters, retiring the Air Force A-10 Warthog ground attack plane, and reducing some military personnel benefits — which have met resistance or outright rejection on Capitol Hill. The benefits proposals, though modest, are particularly touchy: When one servicemember at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., asked about housing allowances, Hagel launched into a long, vague discussion about personnel benefits in general and how retirement in particular had not changed, before finally acknowledging Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) would come down a few percent under the administration’s plan.
“Our budget problems …. are forcing us into making some hard choices,” Hagel said at Rucker. “If we don’t get some relief” — i.e. if Congress doesn’t accept what the administration and Pentagon consider a reasonable package of manageable reductions — “we’re going to have to make some very abrupt cuts, and they won’t be as thoughtful.”
“If sequestration continues — and it is the law of the land and it will come back in 2016 unless the Congress changes it… it will affect everything we do and every decision we make,” Hagel said. “I’m hopeful that the Congress will do something about it.”
Hagel didn’t just say this at Rucker. He was repeating a talking point he’d hit the day before. “[For] most of your, this is the biggest, most abrupt, steepest budget reduction process in your careers,” he had told assembled pilots, groundcrew, and civilians during his stop at Eglin Air Force Base, “and we’re going to need some help from the Congress.”
In fact, at his very first stop on the trip, the submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia, when a Coast Guardsman asked the Secretary the classic wide-open question about “what’s the number one thing that keeps you up at night,” Hagel had turned it into a discussion, not of nuclear weapons, Russian aggression, or Islamic extremism, but of Congress and sequester.
“There are threats everywhere in the world, and many are external, but there are a lot of internal dimensions that we’re dealing with as well,” Hagel replied. “Sequestration has been devastating to this institution. It’s something that our leaders and I work with every day, trying to convince Congress to change that.”
“We’ve got a year or so to help inform and educate and try to persuade the Congress to change that,” the Secretary continued. If the Hill doesn’t hear that message, it won’t be because Hagel didn’t hit it hard enough on this trip. Whether House Republicans in particular are persuaded to accept the Obama administration’s solutions is a different question.
Edited 5:40 pm