As a hearing intended to help prepare for the effects of sequestration degenerates into a partisan shouting match, one embarrassed congressman calls the event a 'spectacle.'
Congress on Aug. 1 convened yet another hearing examining the potential implications of the sweeping budget cuts headed for Washington, but in this case unusually partisan comments from a White House official sparked fierce debate over who’s to blame for sequestration.
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In a House Armed Services Committee hearing that stretched nearly three hours, lawmakers clashed with Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients after Zients blamed Congress for the potentially disastrous fallout looming ahead once sequestration takes effect. Close to an hour and a half of the hearing involved near-unintelligible shouting matches, mainly between Zients and Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).
In a particularly hostile exchange, Forbes pressed Zients on whether he believes “draconian defense cuts” are a sensible way to drive agreement between the two parties on Capitol Hill. Zients in turn pointed the finger at Congress.
“What is holding up now is the Republican refusal to have the wealthiest 2 percent pay their fair share,” Zients said.
The hearing, in which Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also appeared, was slated to discuss planning – or lack thereof – of how sequestration may be implemented if and when the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts to federal spending are enacted in January. In the end, little was said to address that issue specifically, with both Zients and Carter saying that because opportunities exist to reverse the cuts, it’s too early for detailed planning.
“We don’t want to begin taking actions now to tear ourselves to pieces to prepare for something that’s really stupid,” Carter said.
Zients warned that if sequestration does go into effect, its occurrence in the middle of the fiscal year could mean that cuts estimated at 10 percent for the Defense Department and 8 percent for the rest of the government could end up being as high as 14 percent.
“Sequestration is a blunt, indiscriminate instrument designed to force congressional action on achieving a balanced deficit reduction plan,” Zients noted in his testimony. “It is not the responsible way for our nation to achieve deficit reduction.”
The bickering went well beyond just sequestration, with arguments ensuing over tax rates, President Obama’s 2013 budget and other unrelated issues.
At the end, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) apologized to Zients and Carter for what he deemed to be a waste of their time.
"I'm sorry that we dragged you from your governing responsibilities into this spectacle," Johnson said.
In an e-mail statement issued shortly after the hearing, Gordon Adams, American University School of International Service professor and former senior White House official for national security budgets, derided the morning’s turn of events.
“Today’s HASC hearing on sequester became the predictable political theater its organizers intended: a partisan food fight over what would happen and who was responsible,” Gordon said. “Let there be no mistake: Sequester is not good planning or good budgeting. It is survivable, however, if the policy-makers are so determined to avoid agreement that they let it happen.”
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