When reporters asked him about the budget process during a news conference here today, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little had a plain-spoken answer.
“I could try to be somewhat heartfelt and diplomatic, but I’ll boil it down to this: it is, at this stage, a mess,” he said.
The instability is “highly problematic” for the Defense Department, Little said, and affects the entire federal budget.
Although Congress acted to delay a “sequestration” provision in budget law that would have triggered deep across-the-board budget cuts last week, he said, its failure to resolve sequestration once and for all is generating uncertainty among service members and civilians alike.
“We’ve heard that already on the front lines in Afghanistan,” he said. “The troops have serious questions about sequestration. This is not just a Washington issue. It’s a Camp Bastion issue. It’s an issue at Incirlik. It’s an issue at our bases in Asia. We need to think carefully about this.”
Sequestration has been a topic of discussion for too long, Little said, noting that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said many times that there needs to be “a true, genuine, honest conversation about the budget.”
“It’s time for Congress to act,” he added.
Little reiterated some potential effects of sequestration on the Defense Department that Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined in August, adding that they haven’t changed in the intervening five months.
“[Sequestration] could seriously disrupt our forces and programs, to include readiness,” Little said. “It could require us to substantially modify and scale back our new defense strategy.”
In addition, he said, it could reduce war funding and training for units deploying to Afghanistan, reduce commissary hours, delay payments to medical service providers and disrupt investment programs.
“This is not a rational way to govern,” Little said.
Some temporary DOD employees also may be affected, he said. “We’re going to do right by our employees in terms of communication and do what we have to do to follow the law,” he added. “No decisions have been reached yet, but we’re actively consulting with the Office of Management and Budget to see what actions we may need to take in advance of the [March 1] ‘fiscal cliff’ deadline.”
Even though the U.S. military may still be able to carry out the fight in Afghanistan and protect some programs, Little said, “overall, our mission as a department could be devastated — at least for a short period of time. And that’s not a prospect that any of us relish.”
Allowing three major fiscal problems to coincide in less than two months — the debt ceiling, the continuing resolution that funds the government for only a portion of the fiscal year, and sequester — “is just not the right way to go about business,” Little said. “This is not the right way to run government.”
The Defense Department is “doing some serious planning for sequestration,” he said. “We hope to avoid it. We don’t want there to be uncertainty, but with less than two months to go before the next deadline hits for the ‘fiscal cliff,’ we need to be ready.”