Washington, D.C. — When the House Armed Services Committee met Thursday morning for the last time before the election in November, a coterie of high-ranking military officials planned to detail the potential impact of scheduled cuts to the nation's defense programs.
Instead, the hearing became a final chance before recess for committee members to air their grievances about the automatic cuts and assign blame — to the president, each other, even themselves — for the scheduled spending cuts.
Although sequestration, as the automatic cuts are known, was approved with the support of the White House and congressional leaders of both parties, some Republican lawmakers pointed fingers at President Barack Obama alone — including Rep. Austin Scott, a freshman from Georgia, who said of the president, "It’s time for him to lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way of this country."
Others, among them Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from Texas, blamed Congress: "We did this. We passed this idiotic law," Reyes said.
But lawmakers of both parties agreed that the roughly $500 billion in planned cuts to the Pentagon, were they to go into effect at the beginning of next calendar year, would be devastating — if they aren't already.
"I contend that we’re already in sequestration," said Rep. Howard McKeon, the committee’s chairman. "The jobs are already being lost, the decisions are already being made to slow things down and cut these jobs."
In light of a report, released last week, detailing the exact cuts that would be made under the sequester, some lawmakers have wondered publicly if the Department of Defense will be prepared if the cuts hit.
"We don’t want to sequester ourselves," Robert Hale, the Under Secretary of Defense, told the members of the committee. "We’re not going to start cutting back now in anticipation of sequestration."
But, Hale added later, "If it does go into effect, I can assure you that we will be ready to implement it."
Whether it will go into effect remains perhaps the most pressing question facing Congress as the end of the year approaches. Last week, House Speaker John Boehner said he is "not confident" the fiscal cliff will be avoided.
A few members of the committee were slightly more optimistic that a compromise could be reached in time, including Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat, who said, "I still believe there’s a center in this place that’s ready to roll up its sleeves and find a solution to this." Hale was adamant that there was no other option.
"We need to avoid this thing, not try to make it better," Hale said. "If you’re driving a car at a wall at 60 mph, you need to find a way to avoid the wall, not pick up the pieces after you hit it."