“This is No Way to Run a Government!”–Adm. Mullen
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“This is No Way to Run a Government!”–Adm. Mullen

REUTERS/Jason Reed

As a former Secretary of Defense and CIA director who served eight of the last nine presidents, Bob Gates has navigated treacherous issues before—Soviets during the Cold War, the Taliban, South American guerillas, and even some of the top Pentagon brass.

But nothing has stumped Gates, who oversaw the $700 billion military budget until last year, quite like the country's current Congressional gridlock and the government's ineffective efforts to stop runaway deficit spending.

“We’ve lost the ability to execute even the most basic functions of government,” he said.

Appearing by satellite at a panel Monday for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Gates decried both the national debt and the sequester set to automatically lop about $55 billion from the Defense budget next year. No one disagrees on the crippling impact of the cuts that are part of the fiscal cliff, although public shaming of a Congress tagged across polls with approval ratings of roughly 13 percent has not caused them to snap into action.

The mounting debt load—fed by projected increases in entitlement spending—will compromise the nation’s security, but so will the across-the-board cuts under the sequestration agreed to Congress and the White House last year as part of deal to raise the debt ceiling. Domestic programs would also be on the chopping block in 2013, with a combined $120 billion getting trimmed from the budget.

Most Pentagon programs would suffer a 9.4 percent reduction, according to figures released Friday by the Office of Management and Budget. Defense contractors are threatening layoffs and the loss of more than a million jobs.

The policy came about largely because House Republicans, Senate Democrats and President Obama were unable to reach a compromise on curbing the deficit. They added the sequester almost as a form of “mutually assured destruction” to force an agreement on the debt, yet an agreement never materialized that would bridge the ideological divide—with Republicans against tax hikes and Democrats against sharp reductions in social programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Gates dubbed it “managerial cowardice” on Monday, a refusal to set priorities that would put the lives of those in uniform at risk by reducing their amount of training, Fluent in the history of D.C.-policymaking, the closest parallel that he could find came from the comedian Mel Brooks.

“Sequestration reminds me of the scene in ‘Blazing Saddles’ where the sheriff holds a gun to his own head,” Gates said. “This is no way to run a government.”

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, seconded those concerns in person for the panel of retired lawmakers who have grown increasingly distressed by the trajectory of the nation’s finances. The sequester would be devastating, Mullen said, but the budget deficit—which has surpassed $1 trillion for the past four years –might not be fixed without it.

“What hangs over their heads to get them to make a decision?” Mullen said, “I just don’t know the answer to that.”

Several of the retired lawmakers expressed frustration with their successors on Capitol Hill, whose views have been hardened as a result of gerrymandered districts, the loss of power by congressional committee chairmen, and a 24-7 media cycle that in Gates’ words have been “coarsening and dumbing down” the conversation.

“I view sequestration as the result of the failure of our national, collective political will,” said John Tanner, a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee. A confounded Bill Brock, the former Republican senator also from the Volunteer State, asked, “How can they possibly give you a rational excuse for what they’ve done?”

Mullen suggested that “leadership can really solve this,” though he acknowledged that he did not know quite how the needed leadership would materialize.

Gates discussed the importance of clearly communicating the consequences of these policy choices in specifics. But as to fixing the problem itself, the individual who served both Obama and President George W. Bush lamented that no current lawmakers and administration officials were part of the dialogue at the think tank.

“What’s really important is having people who are in government today,” he said, “talking about the consequences.”