Two former leaders of the American defense establishment criticized lawmakers Monday for failing to reach a spending deal to avoid automatic cuts and expressed skepticism about the ability of current policymakers to strike an agreement.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ridiculed the idea of across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration, the policy established by last year's debt limit deal that would make cuts to many federal programs starting next year.
Gates analogized the threat of sequester to the scene in the movie "Blazing Saddles" when Sheriff Bart, Cleavon Little's character, turns his gun to his own head (of course, in the movie, Bart's strategy worked, probably not the point Gates was trying to make).
Gates and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tweaked partisans on both sides for their reluctance to compromise.
With Congress out of town for Rosh Hashanah, an assortment of retired policymakers, including former Senators, gathered to make another push for a debt deal to avert the year-end reductions.
Gates blasted both parties for being too concerned with the upcoming election cycle but attributed some of the logjam to the nature of the electoral system, suggesting gerrymandered districts leave more Members beholden to their bases.
"We have now lost the ability to execute even the most basic functions of government," Gates said.
He also expressed concern about the declining relevance of committee chairmen, whom he said have traditionally been dealmakers even while fiercely defending their partisan positions.
Gates also blamed partisan media for what he termed the "coarsening and dumbing down of the national political discourse."
Mullen said that in conversations with lawmakers in both parties during the past few years, they individually wanted to make needed changes but ran into trouble with leadership.
The other recurring blockade is over matters that affect individual districts, Gates added, citing specifically the trouble with ending the F-22 fighter program.
"When it comes to specific votes on specific issues, they vote parochial interests," Gates said.
Gates said, however, he hopes "whatever adults remain in the two political parties" will reach an agreement in the lame-duck session to make the needed budgetary changes to prevent the sequester coming into effect.
Mullen was not too optimistic that would actually happen.
"Solutions that require compromise seem but a figment of the imagination," Mullen said. "I'm not as hopeful as others that we won't drive off this cliff."
Mullen has said in the past that the national debt was the greatest threat to U.S. national security. He expanded on that Monday afternoon.
He explained that his original answer to a reporter's question was a straightforward way of demonstrating the "abundant disorder in our fiscal house," which he was reluctant to predict would be fixed anytime soon.