Now that he is Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta is warning against dastardly cuts to the defense budget.
At a Pentagon News briefing on September 20 he said that : “The roughly $1 trillion in cuts that would be forced by sequester would seriously weaken our military, and it would really make us unable to protect this nation from a range of security threats that we face. Since the cuts would have to be applied in equal percentages to every project area, we just simply could not avoid hollowing out the force.”
He added the next day before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “This Department is taking on its share of our country’s efforts to achieve fiscal discipline, but I want to caution strongly against further cuts to defense, particularly through the mechanism known as sequester. This mechanism would force defense cuts that, in my view, would do catastrophic damage to our military and its ability to protect the country.”
Sad to say, Panetta is singing a different tune from his days as President Bill Clinton’s green eye shade overseer of the entire budget as head of Office of Management and Budget.
And to you veterans of the budget wars, there are more than a few parallels between the lives of Panetta and that of one of his predecessors, Caspar Weinberger.
During his time in office as President Richard Nixon’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, Caspar Weinberger was a fierce watch dog over unnecessary government spending. He earned the sobriquet “Cap the Knife” for his budget cutting abilities.
Yet when President Ronald Reagan named him Secretary of Defense, Weinberger reversed course and became a fervent advocate of bourgeoning defense budgets including a vast new Star Wars missile defense plan. His new tune:
“You can’t measure the budget simply by looking at the abstract and saying that’s an awful lot of money. You’ve got to look at what the Soviet Union are doing, how much they spend, how much they’re spending for 20 years while we’re going down 20%, and you have to weigh whether or not that threat requires us to do the kinds of things that we think are essential” (Milwaukee Sentinel, May 20, 1985)
“Cap the Knife” was transformed into “Cap the Ladle.”
Sound familiar? Is Panetta walking in Weinberger’s footsteps?
There are marked similarities between Weinberger and Panetta. Not only are they both lawyers from California who became Secretary of Defense after having served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, they both did stints at the Department of Health and Human Services (formerly known as Health, Education and Welfare) and they started out their political lives as Republicans.
And they both changed their spots when they took on new jobs representing different constituencies.
To his credit, Panetta at Office of Management and Budget helped negotiate budget deals with Congress that helped balance the federal budget and eventually produced a budget surplus.
But now, he opts to defend to the last dollar Pentagon spending that has risen dramatically since 2001, from $432 billion to $720 billion.
And he is not above trotting out hollow arguments about a hollow budget.
Oh, Cap, where art thou?