Congress should act quickly to avoid sequestration when it returns in November after the election, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters yesterday. 

Panetta said “Congress is on the clock” because there are only 70 days left until sequestration goes into effect on January 2, 2013.  The Secretary and other senior DoD civilian and military leaders have consistently warned of the “devastating” effects the across-the-board cuts required by sequestration would have on defense capabilities. 

Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter told a congressional committee in August that the more than $50 billion cut required in FY2013 would disrupt DoD’s investment programs, lower flying and steaming hours, reduce readiness levels, and cause a civilian hiring freeze and potential unpaid furloughs.  DoD Comptroller Bob Hale testified last month that the $490 billion cuts required under sequestration over the next nine years would double the reductions required by the Budget Control Act and already included in DOD’s budget plans ($487 billion). 

Most in Congress acknowledge sequestration is a bad idea that needs to be avoided.  There are signs that some are getting serious about acting to avert or at least mitigate sequestration before January 2, 2013.  A bipartisan group of senators has been pressing for a proposal to avoid sequestration.  Other senators and members of Congress have been discussing possible legislative alternatives.  In addition, the business community is becoming more vocal in expressing its concern about the economic effects of sequestration in conjunction with the prospect of the Bush tax cuts expiring at the end of the year (the so-called fiscal cliff).

The possible actions seem to range from delaying the implementation date to allow the new congress time to act to replacing the existing requirement for a spending cut 50-50 (defense-non defense) split in FY2013 with a split that reduces the defense cut.  Others have proposed delaying the January 2 date combined with a “down payment” cut of less than $109 billion in FY2013 and something other than a 50-50 split.  There is also some talk of trying to resurrect the “grand bargain” idea that would meet the sequestration reductions with a broad plan that involves revenues, expenditures, and entitlement spending.

Congress has been frustrated by the administration’s seeming reluctance to state exactly how the cuts would be implemented.  When asked if OMB had given DoD a timeline for planning for sequestration, Panetta responded that DOD had not yet gotten such guidance from OMB.  He said he is still hoping that Congress will act and “sequestration won’t happen.”

Panetta also told reporters he also hoped Congress would act on other high-priority defense issues.  He wants Congress to pass the FY2013 Defense Authorization bill during the lame duck session.  Panetta would like to see Congress also pass the FY2013 DoD Appropriations bill, but said “in the very least we do need a defense authorization bill so that we can continue to implement our new defense strategy.”

He also urged Congress to pass a cybersecurity bill in the lame duck session.  “We really do need strong cybersecurity legislation to ensure that we can help defend the nation against a cyber attack,” he stressed.

Finally, the Secretary pressed for Senate confirmation of General John Allen to be Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of U.S. Europe Command and General Joseph Dunford to be Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.  The president sent these nominations to the Hill earlier this month.