Standing alone

The Iron Triangle contemplates heading 'right off a cliff,' and no one coming to its rescue.

There was something wrong in defense Washington this week – beyond all the other things that are normally wrong.

Congress’ hearings on the fiscal 2013 budget submission took on a baldly pro forma quality, a going-through-the-motions rigidity. Part of the reason could be that some defense advocates have chosen to keep to their basic attack profile from last year, even though conditions on the ground have changed. Part of the reason could be that an actual budget, with actual numbers, made the seriousness of the spending situation actually sink in, where once it was a distant threat.

And the third, possibly biggest reason, could be that after a decade in the center ring of the circus, defense is definitely out of the spotlight. Its champions are realizing that if they’re “heading right off a cliff,” as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon said Thursday, no one could come to their rescue.

First: Before, during and after last year’s debt ceiling, “super committee” and sequestration farce, you heard it often enough to vomit: The U.S. needs to assess all the world’s endless threats, then write a “strategy” for handling them, then draft a budget accordingly. It was a talking point handed down from none other than former Secretary Gates.

Between then and now, that process happened. By its own lights, DoD spent months on it. Nobody is in love with the result, but Secretary Panetta, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and the service chiefs went to the Hill this week ready to defend the “strategy” they and President Obama unveiled last month at the Pentagon.

This forced critics, including Arizona Sen. John McCain and Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, to make a decision. Would they accept the premise of the “pivot” to the Western Pacific and criticize it on its own terms, or would they just avoid the hedgerow skirmishing altogether? They skipped it, arguing this week that last year’s entire exercise was just budget-driven, and what DoD really needs is to do a full assessment of yadda yadda yadda ….

This argument doesn’t seem to have much bite anymore. Nobody went nuts for January’s “strategic guidance,” but it was the product of what strategerians said they wanted. Of course, what they actually want is a piece of paper that says “more, more, ever more” — but that would be impolitic.

The problem is that defense advocates already neutered a DoD document that didn’t support enough spending when they “reviewed” the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. It’s hard to imagine the same trick working twice, especially given the service chiefs’ willingness to get behind what they’ve developed. Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos on Thursday jumped at the chance to talk up the whole process, before McKeon gently cut him off.

At very least, the “what we need is a strategy” leitmotif creates déjà vu, which contributed to this week’s weird tenor. It brought back Gates’ own impatience when he thought people were abusing it – a year ago, he all but rolled his eyes when California Rep. Duncan Hunter wanted to know what a DoD budget would look like if it legitimately accounted for every threat and requirement.

“I have no idea what it would cost,” Gates said.  “Nobody lives in that world … I am telling you, you are never going to get to zero threat. You could spend $2 trillion and you’d never get to zero threat.”

Second: Although most lawmakers kept to their standard script – “Mr Secretary, you still love the Virginia-class submarine, right?” “Congressman, if the Virginia-class submarine were a person and not a submarine, my wife and I would adopt one as our child” – their leaders foreshadowed a deep worry about the guillotine.

McKeon and the HASC’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, both said they feared Congress would not seriously try to deal with sequestration until the end of the year, if it ever does. In fact, McKeon said he wasn’t sure whether Congress would even pass a budget, given the election year difficulties – instead, it might be forced to return yet again to a continuing resolution, another thing DoD hates.

Defense witnesses have a talking point: “We’re really bad at predicting future conflicts,” which is why the U.S. needs to keep a “balanced” force. McKeon offered his own version: We in Congress do not have a good track record in accomplishing things such as undoing sequestration.

That’s why he and McCain are pitching legislation that would void the first year by culling the federal workforce, under the implicit hope that a Republican president and Republican Congress could then fully undo sequestration in 2013.

But Obama has said he’d veto such a bill and Panetta does not support it either. In a hearing Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense subcommittee, Virginia Democrat Rep. Jim Moran asked the secretary about McKeon’s bill without naming it. Moran, whose Northern Virginia district is chock full of federal workers, asked whether losing DoD civilians wouldn’t end up hurting the department, given the loss of their acquisition and management expertise. Panetta agreed.

Panetta’s stock answer is that is he holding out for a comprehensive, bipartisan solution that reduces the deficit by enough to de-trigger January’s sequestration. But it was clear all week that nobody, including him, is very optimistic about that actually happening.

Third: Missouri Rep. Todd Akin identified the “elephant in the room” in the Navy’s hearing on Thursday: “I don’t sense a commitment from everyone here on the Hill” about undoing sequestration, he said.

He too was hearing all the echoes: The “strategy” stuff, all the dire warnings about sequestration, everything – everyone involved knows it by heart. Inside the family, everyone agrees. But outside the Armed Services Committees, many Republicans and Democrats have evidently stopped caring about defense — if they ever did — just as few voters do.

If most lawmakers shrug about sequestration because DoD’s budget isn’t what brings home their bacon, or because they endorse less spending no matter what, that could be a serious problem for the Pentagon and its Hill allies. Defense advocates realized this week they’ve been calling for help from inside a locked room, and there’s no way to know if anyone is coming to their aid.

Members rhetorically grabbed Panetta by his lapels and said, You’ve got to tell the world!

“The word ‘sequestration’ puts people to sleep,” said South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson. “You’ve got to be our Paul Revere.” You’ve got to get the word out about how dangerous this is, he urged.

Georgia’s Republican Rep. Austin Scott told Panetta and Dempsey he wanted them on Fox News and CNN – “Well, I watch Fox, but CNN’s a Georgia company,” Scott added – warning about sequestration.

The silver lining for the Pentagon, lawmakers and the defense industry is that Congress does have a year in which to work out a deal. And the flip side of the coin nobody talks about is that Congress could just retroactively undo sequestration, although Panetta and lawmakers warned that the threat of it is already casting a “shadow” over the industry.

Even so, this may have been the week in which the full implications of today’s defense situation finally sunk in.