WASHINGTON -- Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sharply criticized Congress for its handling of the budget crisis.
"I think that one of the great national security threats is the dysfunctionality of the Congress and its inability to confront the issues that we face now," Panetta said, responding to a question from Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.)
"I served in this house for 16 years," he continued. "During that 16 years, we faced great threats, we faced a lot of problems. But the leadership was there on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, to work together to try to find solutions to these issues, not to walk away from them."
Panetta spoke at the end of a three-hour committee session where the possibility of massive budget cuts was the theme of the day. Under the budget deal reached between the president and Congress, the Pentagon must cut $350 to $450 billion over the next 10 years. If the super committee set up in that deal fails to reach a budget agreement, defense spending would be slashed by a further $600 billion over the same period.
Panetta has previously called that prospect a "goofy meataxe approach." He strongly urged Congress on Thursday not to cut beyond the already-mandated reductions, saying that "when you cut the budget by $450 billion, when you make the choices you have to make, there are some risks that are out there."
"I think what's very important for the super committee and for all members of Congress is to take the time to think about the sacrifice that those men and women go through, to put their lives on the line in order to be able to defend this country," Panetta said. "And if members of the Congress would be willing to engage in the same kind of sacrifice, then I think they will have earned the right to represent those constituents in the Congress."
When asked about Panetta's comments in a press conference following the hearing, Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) agreed with the secretary, calling the uncertainty a "very big problem." He claimed that budget issues distract the American military and place troops on the ground at risk.
"We have soldiers [and] Marines going outside the wire every day in Afghanistan on patrols and they have to be thinking about what's happening to my family, what's my future?" McKeon said. "They shouldn't have to even be thinking about something like that. They should be concentrating on returning home safely. They should be able to focus on IEDs, on the enemy and returning home safely, and they shouldn't be distracted by these kind of thoughts. Shame on us for even putting them in that kind of position."
McKeon and the Republican members of the committee strongly rejected the possibility that they would approve any further reductions in defense spending. "We have gone overboard on the cuts," he said.