Pentagon Waits Out Shutdown While Sequestration Looms

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks to his top leaders during his trip to South Korea.

DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel talks to his top leaders during his trip to South Korea.

As the Pentagon waits for an end to the government shutdown, it’s getting ready for the next battle: sequestration. By Stephanie Gaskell

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is traveling in Asia, far from the dysfunction of Washington where Congress has once again hijacked his ability to plan his budget. First there was sequestration, now there’s a government shutdown and, in a matter of months, another fight over sequestration and this year’s budget.

“The Pentagon … has no budget. We are still living under this dark cloud of uncertainty not knowing what’s going to happen. This reflects on our missions around the world. It reflects our allies’ questioning our commitments. It affects our planning as we are in the process, as you know, of preparing a 2015 budget as we are preparing for further significant cuts under the current law, Budget Control Act 2011, which means $52 billion in additional cuts,” Hagel said during a stop in Seoul, South Korea.

Hagel has been talking to Deputy Secretary Ash Carter, Comptroller Bob Hale and acting General Counsel Bob Taylor to find a way to mitigate the pain of the shutdown, namely how to exempt more civilian workers from furloughs. He said national security is not at risk, but “when you take that number of civilian employees out of the mix of every day planning and working — and they all work with these kinds of things — you’re going to impact readiness. You’re going to impact a mission. There’s no point in kidding about that.”

Pentagon leaders are struggling to match their strategic goals — winding down the war in Afghanistan, rebalancing to Asia while keeping an eye on the Middle East, becoming a leaner military – without knowing what budget conditions they’re operating under.

[Read Defense One’s complete coverage of the government shutdown here]

“It would be nice to say we do a strategy and then we derive a budget. And in good times, in normal times, we’re a lot closer to that,” Hale said in a recent interview with Defense One. “So I think it would be disingenuous to say that we aren’t — there are budget-driven decisions that are happening right now. We are trying to keep in mind the strategy in every way that we can, but we have meet some of the legally binding budget targets.”

Hagel, a former senator who joined Congress in 1997 just after the last government shutdown, said he’s frustrated by the gridlock in Congress.

“I do worry,” he said, “about the essence of governing in a democracy and that we’ve seemed to lose, and that is consensus and compromise. No democracy can govern itself without consensus and compromise. It is impossible. And we seem to have lost that. We have seemed to have lost our way in that being an objective of governing.”

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