Defense & National Security

Could sequester punt push back a Hagel nomination?

Could sequester punt push back a Hagel nomination?

At minimum, the decision of Congress to delay a decision on sequestration will mean two more months of fiscal uncertainty for the Defense Department and the businesses that support it. But could the punt also affect how and when the transition to a new Defense Secretary takes place?

Heritage Foundation research fellow Baker Spring told Human Events in November that he believed current defense secretary Leon Panetta, an outspoken critic of the sequestration mechanism, might be retained in his position if the more than $500 billion in cuts to planned spending did take effect, to oversee their implementation. President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Kerry for Secretary of State, in November, without an accompanying nomination for defense, fueled speculation that there would be a strategic delay in the transition of the Defense top spot.

However, if consensus grows that a budget deal in March will need to realize cuts to Pentagon spending, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama’s reported favorite to succeed Panetta at DoD, may be a preferred choice to oversee the implementation of such a deal.

Hagel made news in 2011 when he told the Financial Times, shortly following a trim of $487 from the Pentagon budget, that he wanted to see the Department pared down even further.

“I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time,” Hagel said.
This contrasts sharply with Panetta’s message that while the 2011 cuts were bearable for the department, another cutback of that magnitude would be “devastating.”

Obama himself has given mixed signals about his feelings regarding sequestration. During an October 23 presidential debate, Obama said bluntly that the sequester “will not happen,” a comment his team immediately tried to downplay. His party’s platform, agreed to earlier in the fall, seemed to condone the cuts as a necessary cost-saving measure.

“In our current fiscal environment, we must also make tough budgetary decisions across the board — and that includes within the defense budget,” the platform read. ” … The administration has worked with Congress to make these decisions, which has been a strategy-driven process.”

Most recently, speaking to the press on Dec. 31, Obama doubled down on his requirement that a deal to stop the sequester would include a revenue increase, and described the current predicament in a less-than-forceful manner, especially considering his opposition to cuts to other spending.

“And so there are some programs that are scheduled to be cut that we’re using an axe instead of a scalpel — may not always be the smartest cuts,” he said. “And so that is a piece of business that still has to be taken care of.”

If, as many suspect, a sequester-stopping deal will still include tough cuts to defense, the timing of the new defense secretary’s nomination and confirmation hearings, as well as the choice of nominee, could all be in play.

While the embattled Hagel is the frontrunner for the position, defense insiders such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter or former under secretary for Defense Policy Michele Flournoy may also get tapped.

It’s all politics, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Let’s say the number (for a budget cuts deal) is so egregious, it boxes Panetta in. Does he leave slightly early?” Eaglen said. “The next person, their confirmation hearing, this will certainly be a centerpiece of it.”

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