With Defense cuts looming, Congress worries about jobs

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to U.S. troops during a visit to Kabul, June 7, 2012. JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addresses troops in Kabul
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks to U.S. troops during a visit to Kabul, June 7, 2012.

(CBS News) Congress may be facing pressure to find every way it can to save a buck, but some Republicans and Democrats are expressing concerns that looming budget cuts facing the Defense Department go too far. They say that the economic downturn doesn't change the fact that the world remains a volatile place with multiple threats that must be controlled and countered.

But it's not just national security that has congressmen concerned. When talking about the looming cuts to the Pentagon, lawmakers also cite the impact the cuts would have on the economy and job creation.

The Pentagon faces "the kind of mindless budgeting that needs to be avoided," Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a Washington event Tuesday. "There's an agreement we've got to avoid these across-the-board, salami cuts in all of our programs."

Levin was referring to the nearly $600 billion in automatic Pentagon spending cuts scheduled at the end of the year as a result of the failure of the so-called "congressional supercommittee" last year. The cuts would come on top of the $487 billion in cuts the Pentagon is expected to make over the next five years because of the debt deal Mr. Obama made with Congress last summer.

Levin said his "best guess" is that the Pentagon could reasonably withstand $100 billion in cuts over 10 years. To come up with that number, the senior senator said he was considering "what are the threats you're going to face and how they are going to change."

Levin also pointed to the potential economic impact: "Business folks have got to plan," he said. "That uncertainty which is created by the threat, the specter of sequestration, I believe is a real threat to the economy."

A small group of senators will get the chance on Wednesday to question military leaders about the cuts in a hearing before the defense subpanel of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify before the subpanel on the overall military budget.

The economic impact of the cuts may or may not come up, but given the state of the economy and the fact that this is a presidential election year, it's sure to be on senators' minds.

"Both parties are trying to make statements about other party's job creation abilities," Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told Hotsheet. "Because the economy is foremost on voters' minds, there's not only a parochial incentive, there's also a political incentive" to consider how the defense budget impacts jobs.

"Just when you thought the economic news could not get much worse," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters last month, "we have an entirely predictable and preventable jobs crisis approaching in January, where because of the [automatic spending cuts], my state alone will lose 91,000 private sector jobs."

Jobs are usually a secondary concern in any discussion of Defense cuts, but some legislators have focused primarily on the economic impact. They include congressmen in the rust belt like Democratic Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, where the M1 Abrams tank is produced.

"Michigan has a lot at stake in the defense industry and the defense industry has a lot at stake in Michigan," Levin wrote last year. Both Democrats and Republicans have defended the continued production of the tanks, even though the Pentagon says it can afford to halt production.

Peterson said that in the past couple of years, it has become "increasingly OK to put parochial interests ahead of national security interests in talking about defense spending." Calling it a "real departure" from the past, she added, "I think that's a result of the tack that defense companies are taking with their lobbying."

Peterson said the trend is cause for concern. "National security spending is not a jobs program, and it should never be perceived as one," she said.

"When lawmakers preserve national security spending for jobs, they're essentially arguing for what Republicans claim to be their nemesis -- they're arguing for a defense nanny state," she added. "There are plenty of studies that show if you want to throw money at the government to create jobs, there are better ways to do it."