Another Panetta tactic is telling Congress exactly what federal spending should be cut, singling out entitlements -- 90 percent of which go to the elderly, the seriously disabled, or members of working households. Starting with his first appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, he instructed Congress: "If you're going to be responsible in dealing with the deficit, you have got to consider the mandatory programs." Two weeks ago, he offered: "I think the responsibility now, both Republicans and Democrats, has to be to look at the entitlement area, what savings can be achieved on entitlements." He also said, "I want to see some progress with regards to both entitlements as well as on revenues."
Imagine if Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius -- whose fiscal year 2013 budget request is less than 15 percent of Panetta's -- told Congress that it should tackle the federal debt by eliminating the bomber leg of the nuclear triad? Just as nobody would take her serious for offering her opinion on federal spending outside of her agency, Congress should ignore Panetta.
Underlying Panetta's instructions to Congress is his belief that there is no excess defense funding. In February, when asked by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad if there were any additional cuts he could imagine, Panetta replied: "What we have put in place I think represents an important step that we should stick to." Last week he declared: "My view right now is that we have done our part with regards to deficit reduction. And I sure don't intend to put anything additional on the table." The Pentagon's acquisition czar recently echoed Panetta, warning: "There aren't a whole lot of things left in the budget that we can cut."
Panetta repeatedly offers two justifications for why the Pentagon cannot tolerate additional budget cuts. The first is that -- just as Robert Gates did before him -- Panetta directed the military to conduct "ongoing and new efficiency initiatives," which led to the $487 billion in suggested reductions. This purported act of self-sacrifice belies the fact that every federal agency receiving discretionary funding conducted an internal, "strategy-driven" review to identify where they could cut spending. The truth is that military spending grew 70 percent in the 10 years after 9/11, and equals 57 percent of federal discretionary spending. If the White House and Congress decide to reduce the federal debt through additional discretionary spending cuts, the defense budget will have to be included.
The other justification from Panetta -- that I and others have noted -- is the chronic habit of threat inflation. Unlike predecessors such as Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who primarily warned about "unknowns" and "uncertainty," Panetta's catalogue of nightmares thickens in accordance with his time spent in the E-Ring and now ranges from the specific ("cyber Pearl Harbor") to the imprecise ("the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East" and "turmoil elsewhere") to the non-existent ("the nuclear threat in Iran"). In public remarks at the Center for a New American Security last week, he used the word "threat" 30 times.
While decrying Congress for "poor stewardship and poor leadership," it is worth considering Panetta's performance over pressing problems within the Pentagon under his watch and authority: sexual assaults of service members have continued to increase, as have suicides and discharges of senior uniformed officials for ethical lapses. Secretary Panetta has ordered Pentagon-wide reviews to counter these disturbing trends, and he speaks out against the military culture that allows them to continue. However, if leadership is "the acceptance of responsibility for an outcome," as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, defines it, then Panetta has failed.
Among his many selfless contributions over six decades of public service, Leon Panetta was the House Budget Committee chair, White House chief of staff, and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Today, however, he is the secretary of defense, and under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, he is empowered to be "the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense," with "authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense." These are monumental tasks for any one person, and rather than disparaging elected leaders and calling for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, Panetta and his successors should dedicate their attention to seeing them through.