POLITICO – Rep. Buck McKeon is frustrated.
Facing the prospect of across-the-board cuts in defense spending, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has been urging his colleagues to act now to stave off what he sees as looming disaster.
“I am very concerned,” the California Republican said. “I don’t see anything happening, and we can’t wait until January to do this.”
At issue is sequestration — the $1.2 trillion of automatic spending cuts over 10 years mandated by the Budget Control Act.
About half the cuts — $500 billion — would be in defense, with about $55 billion set to take effect in January, unless Congress acts to prevent them.
Many members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — oppose the automatic cuts, which would affect nearly every Pentagon spending account. But so far, lawmakers have been unable to reach a deal to thwart them.
McKeon — serving his 10th term in the House and his first as committee chairman — sat down with POLITICO in his Capitol Hill office to discuss the complicated policy and political issues. Here are some edited excerpts:
What’s going on behind the scenes to reach a deficit-reduction deal to prevent the automatic cuts?
I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. It looks like a bunch of people have their heads buried in the sand. I wish I could say there are things going on. There are attempts. Every once in a while, I’ll talk to some of the senators — [Jon] Kyl, [John] McCain, [Kelly] Ayotte, [Lindsey] Graham — because they’re really concerned about it. But there’s not much they can do over there to push things forward.
You’ve escalated your tone in recent weeks. Why is that?
I am very concerned, and I guess that’s why my rhetoric is stepping up. I don’t see anything happening, and we can’t wait until January to do this. We can’t wait until the lame-duck session to do this. … I feel an urgency because I think [sequestration is] happening right now. People are already being laid off and jobs are already being frozen or they’re not hiring, and I’m frustrated.
Are you open to increasing government revenues as part of a deal to stave off the cuts?
I see no reason to negotiate with myself. Our bills are out there. We have gone through the tough votes and the reconciliation process. The committees came up with the money to pay for the first year [of sequestration], and there’s nothing other than talk from the Democrats. Put it down in writing.
Have you reached out to any Democrats?
I talked to Adam [Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee], and I think we both understand each other very well. He just says, “We need more revenue.” I’ve talked to other members — no sense saying who they are — and some just think it’s not a big deal. Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it during the lame duck.
If no deal is reached before the end of the year, do you expect Congress to push back the January deadline?It’s pretty safe to say we’ll kick something down the road. That seems to be what we do. At some point, though, I don’t see how you can just keep kicking down the road. I think a lot of things are going to change with the election. We could pick up the Senate. We could pick up the White House. That’s looking more and more like a possibility.
If the Senate’s going to change, then Republicans are certainly not going to want to do anything in the lame duck, if [they know they will be] in charge in January. … If there’s going to be a new president on Jan. 20, why should we start moving on things that he would just have to turn over his first day in office?
What are you hearing from industry?
I was talking to Bob Stevens of Lockheed [Martin] … and he said he had been into the [White House Office of Management of Budget] to get some kind of guidance, and they said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not going to happen.” But any kind of prudent person would make some plans. And [Stevens] has to answer to a board of directors. He has to answer to stockholders. He has to answer to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
His attorneys are telling him, “You’ve got to tell all of your people that they might not have a job in January.” They’re figuring that they’re probably going to have a 10 percent cut. They don’t know which 10 percent.
Should we expect more hearings on the issue?
We’re proceeding now to get a hearing again on sequestration. I want the OMB to tell us why they’re not giving any counsel. We want to hear what they’re planning to do.
Are OMB officials resisting your call for them to testify?
That’s kind of the nature of things.