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Clock ticking to disastrous defense cuts

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Defense industry CEOs, from left, David Hess, Robert Stevens and Sean O'Keefe warn the House against sequestration.
Defense industry CEOs, from left, David Hess, Robert Stevens and Sean O'Keefe warn the House against sequestration.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: On January 2, the defense budget will automatically be cut by about $500B
  • Bennett: "Sequestration" was meant to spur Washington to make a responsible deal
  • Now it threatens to gut military, he says. Defense secretary, generals, politicians don't want it
  • Washington must stop playing politics, he says, agree to budget deal to end the threat

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Without action from Washington, on January 2, 2013, the U.S. defense budget will undergo the most dramatic and dangerous cuts in its history.

Because of the failure of the supercommittee to agree on a deficit reduction plan, the 2011 Budget Control Act automatically cuts about $500 billion from the defense budget. These cuts fall on top of the already agreed-upon $487 billion in reductions. All told, the cuts would amount to about $1 trillion over a decade.

The results would be nothing short of catastrophic. But don't take my word for it.

On November 14, 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote a letter to Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham explaining the ramifications of the full sequestration defense cuts. Should these cuts take place over the next 10 years, he said, the United States would be left with its smallest ground force since World War II; the smallest Navy since 1915; the smallest fighter force in the history of the Air Force; and the smallest civilian work force in the Defense Department's history.

William Bennett
William Bennett

Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, testified on Capitol Hill in May that such cuts would leave the corps without "adequate capabilities and capacities to meet a single major contingency operation."

National defense is only 20% of the budget, yet the sequester subjects it to 50% of the automatic cuts. The other $500 billion will be cut from domestic programs. Sequestration, which both Democrats and Republicans voted for, was intended to spur Washington to responsible action; it was never meant to be an effective deficit-reduction tool. No doctor operates with a pickax, unless, of course, he intends to maim his patient.

Who's to blame for threat of defense budget cuts?

Last week on my radio show, "Morning In America," Sen. Graham said the full brunt of these cuts would mean "no more F-35s, no more modern fighters" and "it means that those who are serving in the military will be sent off to future wars ill-equipped and unprepared."

How bad are the defense cuts?
Rep. McKeon: Soldiers will get fired
GOP blames Obama for defense cuts

Leaders on both sides of the aisle agree: Sequestration cuts will gut the world's greatest military. Washington cannot, and must not, allow this to happen. And yet, the president and his administration seem preoccupied with leveraging defense cuts for political gamesmanship.

Last week, the White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill saying it would exempt all military personnel from the cuts, thereby avoiding the political fallout from military voters and ensuring that the bulk of the cuts come to equipment, readiness, and weapons. We may have an army, but, if the cuts happen, little to arm them with.

The remainder of the cuts will fall on the Defense Department's wide network of contractors. In a recent study, the Aerospace Industries Association found that the sequester cuts could eliminate more than 2 million jobs and add 1.5% to the unemployment rate.

Such massive layoffs made in anticipation of the budget cuts and before an election would be disastrous, especially in swing states, like Virginia, whose economies depend heavily on defense contractors. Knowing full well the political fiasco this would be, the Obama administration's Labor Department issued a memo advising defense industry contractors to ignore the WARN Act, which requires federal contractors to issue layoff notices 60 days before, meaning they would land in employees' hands four days before the November 6 election.

Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, fired back at the White House and told contractors to ignore the Labor Department.

On Tuesday, the White House finally agreed to detail exactly where these massive cuts will come from within the Defense Department and from domestic programs. The president signed the bill only after the Democrat-led Senate unanimously passed the Republican-led House's Sequestration Transparency Act, which requires the White House to inform Congress and the public exactly how and where the sequestration cuts will be made.

Now that the cuts will be disclosed in full view, one cannot believe the president would go against the wishes of his own secretary of defense and generals and allow the military to be subjected to these traumatic cuts and massive layoffs.

Rather, the president seems to be engaging Republicans in a high-stakes game of chicken -- his demands, like tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans, or the threat of sequestration. Republicans shouldn't yield, but call this what it is -- reckless and dangerous politicking.

After all, the president is the commander-in-chief. If he takes credit for the death of Osama bin Laden, he takes responsibility for welfare of the military and the safety of America.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.

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