The best part of Bob Gates' rare returns to Washington, D.C. (even by satellite) is that you can count on the straight-talking Kansan to tell it like it is. And right now, when it comes to the defense budget, Congress, and partisanship, the world according to Gates stinks.
"Sequestration reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles, where the sheriff holds a gun to his own head and warns the crowd not to make him shoot," Gates said via satellite to a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event. "This is no way to run government."
If you don't know Mel Brooks' classic scene, a sleepy Western town has just realized that the long-awaited new sheriff sent to save them is, in fact, a black man. Immediately, they want to lynch him, so the new black sheriff literally pulls his own gun and puts it to his chin. He pleads with the crowd to let himself go or he'll shoot himself. They relent. Once safely inside, he says, "Oh baby, you are so talented. And they are so dumb."
That's what former Defense Secretary Gates, one of the longest-serving national security officials and executive branch veterans in Washington history, thinks of Congress's mandatory across-the-board cuts to federal spending.
"When [Adm. Mike Mullen] and I were working together, my guidance was that if we had to deal with budget cuts or we had to find more resources, we would never resort to across-the-board cuts," he said. "I referred to it as managerial cowardice, a refusal to make choices and establish priorities. Sequestration does all of that but on steroids."
Gates spoke to the "real" effects of sequestration -- like fighter pilots getting less flight time -- and why members of Congress are stuck across party lines. He delivered a typically-Gatesian line about how even when members of Congress wanted to impeach Harry Truman every day, the sides were still able to see the big picture and pass the Marshall Plan.
Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also on the panel in person, strongly opposed sequestration but cautioned against removing the trigger before members could make a budget deal.
"I guess I think about that in terms of motivation. I think we really need to take steps to solve this problem [of sequestration] now," Mullen said. "That said ... what hangs over their heads to get them to the point of making a decision?"
Gates added: "How do you get the members of Congress to forgo parochial interests in terms of doing what's in the best interest for the country as a whole. I ran into this, Mike and I ran into this, on every single specific program that we wanted to [cut]." He specifically referred to the decision to halt production early on the F-22 fighter jet, which has parts made in congressional district across the country.
In another example, Gates said that "everybody" agrees that military health care costs are unsustainable, but lamented that Congress would not go along with increasing healthcare premium fees for the first time since the mid-1990s. It's a difference, he argued, of a family paying $420 a year versus $520 a year, which he said was one-sixth of what most federal employees pay.
"So even in an area like that where everybody in principle agrees that something has to be done, the Congress will not go along with it. So, figuring out how to get these people to rise above their parochial interests and, frankly, be willing to put their re-election at risk to do the right thing for the country, I think, is what's critical. "
Mullen described attending a small dinner on the Hill with newly elected members of Congress early in their terms several years ago. The members said they already were struck by "the power of the gavel" wielded by their leaders over the lower ranks, blocking bipartisan movement.
In other words, Mullen felt individual members may want to solve these problems, but "collectively...the ability to move from the desire to execution does not appear to be there."
Gates, who loves his history, said that in this case history is "not encouraging." Democracies need a crisis on the doorstep to rise above the fray, he argued.
"It's here now ... but it's too abstract."