By Jennifer Rizzo
Republican members of Congress went head to head with the White House Wednesday, pressing the administration on how across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect next year would be implemented.
An administration official in turn pressed back, telling Congress to do its job and pass balanced budget legislation to avoid the indiscriminate cuts.
"To make this vivid, the right course is not to spend time moving around rocks at the bottom of the cliff to make for a less painful landing," said Jeffrey Zients, the acting director of The Office of Management and Budget, the entity which would provide guidance on implementation. "The right course is to avoid driving off the cliff altogether."
Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also appeared before the House Armed Services Committee.
"We don't want to begin taking actions now that could tear ourselves to pieces in the expectation of something that's really stupid if it happens five months from now," Carter said.
As part of an agreement that allowed President Barack Obama to raise the debt ceiling last year, a congressional "super committee" was tasked to find more than a trillion in government savings over the next decade, but no solution was reached.
If Obama and Congress cannot come to agreement on where the cuts should come from, $1 trillion would automatically be axed from the federal government's budget. The defense budget will be axed by $500 billion over the next decade. The automatic cuts, which are set to go into effect on January 2, are referred to as sequestration.
Zients did not provide a specific plan of action other than to say that all nonexempt defense programs will be cut 10% across the board, while nondefense funding would be cut by about 8%. And since cuts wouldn't take effect until a quarter into the fiscal year, the actual percentage in cuts is likely to be higher.
"Sequestration by design is bad policy, and Congress should pass balanced deficit reduction to avoid it," said Zients. "The intent of the sequester was to use the threat of mutually disagreeable cuts to both defense and nondefense programs. ... If allowed to occur, sequestration would be destructive to domestic investments, national security and core government operations."
When pressed on why he could not provide more specifics, Zients pushed back, saying time would be better spent trying to avoid the cuts rather than trying to "massage numbers."
Members of the committee were not confident that a deal would be reached.
"We have a responsibility to fix this. I'm just not very optimistic at how we're going to go about that," said Chairman Buck McKeon, R-California. And U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, echoed the chairman's thoughts, saying Congress' "track record isn't that good."
Carter gave detailed examples of how the cuts would hurt the Defense Department, saying that while the Pentagon would try to protect wartime operating budgets, the readiness of the individual services will be impacted. Some deploying units, including those going to Afghanistan, could receive less training, according to Carter.
Reduced funding for civilian personnel will probably lead to the release of temporary Defense Department employees, a partial hiring freeze and could also result in unpaid furloughs.
Cuts will be seen on military bases and in the defense health program. Thousands of procurement programs, research and development projects and military construction projects would each be reduced.