In my last days as defense secretary earlier this year, I made one final effort on Capitol Hill to persuade the leadership of Congress not to let sequestration happen.
I described the serious impact on defense readiness and the real danger that it would hollow out the force.
Every member of the leadership — Democrat and Republican — agreed with my analysis but to a person admitted there was little that could be done.
I persisted. I even offered additional defense savings in exchange for the discretion to determine where the cuts could take place. Finally, one member praised my efforts to find a compromise but said: “Leon, you don’t understand. The Congress is resigned to failure.”
It was difficult for me to accept that explanation then, and it is even more difficult to accept it now in the face of mounting evidence that the sequester is doing serious damage to our defense, our society and our economy.
In defense alone, according to recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Adm. James A. Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fewer than half of the Air Force’s frontline fighters are combat-ready; 12 combat squadrons have been grounded; key Combat Training Center rotations have been canceled; multiple ship deployments, including the USS Truman carrier strike group, have been canceled; and furloughs for 650,000 civilian employees continue, resulting in a 20 percent pay reduction during every furlough week.
All this and other effects of sequestration are weakening U.S. ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan.
To have this happen under any circumstance is irresponsible. To have it happen as the result of a self-inflicted wound is outrageous.
As a former elected member of the House, I deeply believe in the principle that elections come with a solemn obligation to act in the best interest of the nation. To deliberately not act, or to be resigned to failure, is a breach of a member’s oath of office to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.”
In our democracy, we govern either by leadership or crisis. If leaders are willing to take the risks associated with leadership, it’s at least possible to avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, then we will inevitably govern by crisis.
Today, unfortunately, we are governing by crisis after crisis after crisis. The country can do that, but at a price: U.S. citizens will lose trust in our system of governing, and the world will view the United States as less able to back its word with power.
In my 50 years of public service, I have seen Washington at its best and at its worst. I still believe in the resilience of U.S. leadership. I’ve seen government rise to the occasion — from economic recessions to war to social injustice to natural disasters.
I’ve seen members in the House and Senate who struggle to find consensus. That can happen, but not if most members are resigned to failure, and not if the only political strategy is to figure out how to blame the other party for failure.
In these next few months, major decisions loom on the budget, the debt ceiling, appropriations, the sequester and immigration reform.
If nothing is done because of political gridlock, members may somehow hold onto their offices, but the United States will have been weakened — and not as the consequence of some unforeseeable event or crisis, but because our elected leaders did nothing.
Theodore Roosevelt said: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. And the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Neither Congress nor the nation can afford to become resigned to failure.
If brave men and women in uniform can put their lives on the line every day to defend our nation, surely members of Congress can take the risks to do what is necessary to keep America strong.
That is not just their responsibility. It is their solemn oath.
Leon Panetta was director of central intelligence from 2009 to 2011 and secretary of defense from 2011 until earlier this year. He was a Democratic representative from California from 1977 to 1994.