Congress

Many critics of Army cuts ignored Pentagon warnings, supported sequestration

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., testified during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that budget uncertainty was hurting morale
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., testified during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that budget uncertainty was hurting morale AP

Some of the loudest critics of the proposed staffing cuts the Army announced Thursday at bases around the United States were the very members of Congress who four years ago voted to impose government-wide budget measures that the Pentagon warned then would compel it to slash the military.

The Army’s announcement of plans to reduce its active duty force by 40,000 troops over the next two years was panned widely in Congress, especially by lawmakers from states with bases hit hard by the proposed cuts.

Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop criticized plans to eliminate 3,402 positions at Fort Benning in Georgia. Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers condemned the Army’s proposal to cut the number of troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina by 842.

Democrat Rep. Sandford Bishop and Republicans Renee Ellmers and Mac Thornberry complained about the drawdown. All voted for the budget bill that compelled it.

“Our national security should not be held hostage by sequestration,” Bishop said.

“These cuts take us backwards – and at a time when there are mounting threats abroad, it is all the more imperative the U.S. maintains a robust military,” Ellmers said.

Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed dismay over the Army’s announced force reductions – from 490,000 to 450,000 active duty troops – as did Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Six bases nationwide are slated to lose more than 1,000 soldiers.

Yet all four lawmakers were among those who voted for the controversial Budget Control Act, which the House passed Aug. 1, 2011, and the Senate approved the following day.

That bill, which passed after weeks of bitter debate in Congress, imposed across-the board cuts under a system called sequestration. The bill divided both parties in the House and the Senate, with significant numbers of lawmakers voting for and against it.

During the legislative debate and since then, the Pentagon repeatedly warned that the forced spending reductions would hamstring its ability to respond to future threats – such as the sudden rise a year ago of the Islamic State, with its sweep across large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough.

Chuck Hagel, then secretary of defense

Even before the Islamic State began its campaign, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Congress to stop the forced cuts in February 2014 – when he first floated the possibility of significant reductions in the number of Army troops.

“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said then.

The world looked much different four years ago from what it does now. When Congress passed sequestration, President Barack Obama was almost finished fulfilling his 2008 White House campaign promise to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq, and the security situation there appeared relatively stable.

The civil war in neighboring Syria, which would give rise to the Islamic State, was in its early months.

The militants’ march across the two countries has forced Obama to send some 3,500 U.S. troops back to Iraq. Their mission is to advise and train Iraqi forces, but several prominent senators have recently said American combat troops might have to return to help defeat the Islamic State.

There’s a tremendous amount of angst across the force, and a large part of that is driven by the uncertainty about how big the force will be.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford

While Congress has been able to restore some of the military’s lost funding under sequestration – often through last-minute appropriations deals – Pentagon leaders object that the uncertainty each year and the piecemeal budget approach harm their ability to plan effectively.

“We’ve been going one year at a time budgetarily now for several years straight, and it’s extremely disruptive to the operations of the department,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter testified Wednesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on countering the Islamic State.

“It is managerially inefficient because we’re in this herky-jerky process,” Carter told senators. “It is difficult to have a multiyear national defense strategy, which we must have, with a one-year-at-a-time perspective. It’s difficult to run large programs – shipbuilding programs, aircraft programs – efficiently in a one-year-at-a-time budget.”

The Army is by far the largest of the Pentagon’s five military forces, accounting for 38 percent of the country’s 1.3 million active duty troops.

At his confirmation hearing Thursday to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said that sequestration had hurt the morale of troops in the Army and beyond.

“There’s a tremendous amount of angst across the (active duty) force, and a large part of that is driven by the uncertainty about how big the force will be, what will happen to their particular careers and will we have the equipment necessary to accomplish the mission,” Dunford said.

Randy George, the Army’s director of force management, warned Thursday that still steeper personnel reductions may be in store if sequestration remains in effect.

95 Democratic House members voted against sequestration in 2011, with the same number of Democrats backing it. 174 Republicans supported the forced cuts, against 66 who opposed them.

“Unless the provisions of the Budget Control Act are changed or reversed, the Army will have to cut an additional 30,000 soldiers by 2019,” George told Pentagon reporters.

Even before Thursday’s proposed cuts, George said, the Army had already reduced its projected strength by 80,000 troops.

“The decision to make these (new) reductions was not easy and will affect almost every Army installation,” he said.

George said the plan required the Army to balance “the threats we face and the current fiscal environment we must operate within.”

The Army is by far the largest of the Pentagon’s five military forces, accounting for 38 percent of the country’s 1.3 million active duty troops.

Not all of the congressional criticism Thursday represented a reversal of lawmakers’ stances on sequestration.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, could not forestall new planned cuts of 1,250 active duty personnel at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on the Tacoma outskirts, making it one of six bases nationwide slated to lose more than 1,000 soldiers.

Smith was among 95 Democratic House members to vote against sequestration in 2011, with the same number of Democrats backing it. A total of 174 Republicans supported the forced cuts then against 66 who opposed them.

“Sequestration and the Budget Control Act, which are responsible for slashing the defense budget, exist because the Republican Party held our economy hostage and threatened to default on our loans,” Smith said Thursday.

During a dramatic standoff in summer 2011, a block of mainly Republican lawmakers refused to raise the government’s debt ceiling unless the forced budget cuts were put in place.

Some of the sequestration supporters insisted that the sky was not falling despite the Army’s announced personnel reductions.

In a joint statement, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both of whom voted for the 2011 budget bill, said their state had not fared too badly in seeing Fort Leonard Wood in line to lose 774 active duty troops, about 15 percent of its current size of 5,168 soldiers.

“The announced reductions to active duty personnel, while significant, are lower than the cuts at many other Army posts across the nation and lower than the level of cuts Fort Leonard Wood experienced in 2013,” the senators said.

Their statement was joined by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican whose district outside Kansas City includes Fort Leonard Wood. She broke with most GOP lawmakers in voting against sequestration.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that Republican Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter had voted for sequestration. He was not in Congress at the time of the Aug. 1, 2011, vote.

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