There was screaming. There were allegations. There was partisan bickering. For nearly three hours Wednesday, one of the last-remaining bastions of political cooperation in Washington staged what one lawmaker dubbed a political "spectacle."
The House Armed Services Committee has long taken pride in a spirit of cross-party cooperation. But when Jeffrey Zients, the White House's budget chief, bluntly said House Republicans should endorse tax hikes to pare the federal deficit, a partisan brawl ensued.
Zients struck a nerve, and Republicans members like Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio and Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia responded with a display of partisan bitterness rarely seen inside the Armed Services Committee's hearing room.
At times, both Turner and Forbes yelled at Zients--and the budget director fired back. For nearly 90 minutes, it often became difficult to discern what Zients or his GOP questioners were even saying. The squabbling inevitably dragged in committee Democrats, and an ideological battle royal over tax rates, President Obama's 2013 budget plan, Senate Democratic leaders, and other non-defense issued raged.
The stunning scene led Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, to apologize to Zients and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for wasting their time. "I'm sorry that we dragged you from your governing responsibilities into this spectacle," Johnson said.
Longtime defense experts who served in the halls of the Pentagon and White House and where watching the hearing quickly took to Twitter to state their disgust.
"A dismal show from our elected leaders at the...hearing tweeted Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress. "Let's hope Congress shows maturity after the election. "
"Hearing on sequester is the predictable food fight. Drama substituting for policy-making," Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, tweeted during the hearing. "Pull the plug on these guys (and gals)."
The hearing was called so the committee's Republicans could hammer Zients over the White House's decision to not order federal agencies to plan how they would cut more than $1 trillion from planned spending over a decade. Those cuts, split evenly between national defense and domestic spending, would automatically kick in if Congress fails to pass a debt-reduction bill by January 2 totalling at least $1.2 trillion.
Zients and Carter told the panel that the impact of the cuts--which would be made by simply taking a specific amount out of non-exempt accounts--cannot be lessened by planning. Carter repeated the Pentagon and defense business sector's year-old stance that the $500 billion in cuts over a decade would be "devastating."
The deputy defense secretary warned of cuts to training for troops preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, canceled projects at bases, a hiring freeze, employee furloughs, and in some cases "denials of medical service." He also said the deep cuts would affect a number of weapon programs. All told, the cuts--which Democrats and Republicans say they oppose--would "create a hollow military force."
Not every defense expert believes that, however.
Laura Peterson of Taxpayers for Common Sense notes the debate in the defense community has turned to "how [the] cuts would be implemented not whether DOD can absorb $500 billion in cuts, which it certainly can."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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