Members of Congress are still out of town for another few weeks as they take part in a heated election cycle, but when they come back, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says they need to get straight to work on several big items.
The still-unresolved matter of sequestration tops the Pentagon’s list of pleas for congressional action in the short session after Election Day. But an actual budget, a Defense authorization bill and a long-awaited update to the nation’s laws relating to cybersecurity would be nice to have too.
The lame duck session set to start in mid-November will leave lawmakers with a precious few weeks to tackle some of the most contentious issues of the legislative session, including the tax and automatic federal spending cut matters that comprise what the Congressional Budget Office has termed the “fiscal cliff.”
With just a little more than two months left until DoD’s $500 billion share of those sequestration cuts kicks in, Panetta took to the podium at the Pentagon to press Congress one more time to find a way around them.
“Congress must act to avert sequestration. There are only 70 days until this happens, and Congress is certainly on the clock,” he said.
Full plate awaits Congress
In case compressing the sequestration problem Congress has left unresolved for more than a year into just a few weeks isn’t enough of a challenge, Panetta said Congress also needs to pass both a DoD budget for next year and a the massive annual Defense authorization bill — two more items lawmakers left unfinished before their August recess.
The House and Senate did pass a six-month continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown. But that measure simply extended 2012 funding levels into the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, leaving the funding for programs in DoD and across government on autopilot, largely preventing new starts, and conversely, leaving in place funding for programs the department says could be better spent elsewhere.
“We’re developing a 2014 budget that isn’t based on what Congress has done, because they haven’t done it,” he said. “I don’t even know what the 2013 budget it going to be, much less what Congress is going to provide for 2014. This is a strategic issue. What kind of stability am I going to have in terms of defense spending for the future? For me to be able to put a strategy in place, I have to have some stability with regard to where we’re going from here. I don’t have that right now, and frankly that’s a major concern.”
Third on Panetta’s list is passage of a comprehensive cybersecurity bill — something that’s been held up in Congress over allegations that the Obama Administration’s preferred approach, an overhaul that matches closely with legislation sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, would represent heavyhanded government over-regulation of private sector critical infrastructure operators.
“As I made clear earlier this month, we really do need strong cybersecurity legislation to ensure that we can help defend the nation against a cyber attack.” Panetta was referring to a cybersecurity speech he delivered in New York two weeks ago.
Eric Rosenbach, DoD’s deputy assistant secretary for cyber policy, said there were several main purposes behind the address. The department wanted to share newly-declassified details about current cyber threats and express DoD’s current view about where the military fits into the whole-of-government picture when it comes to defending the nation against cyberattacks.
“The third was to put a challenge back on the private sector to really think about this. There is a need, in my opinion, for some type of legislation that deals with not just information sharing but also for some kind of [cybersecurity] standards,” Rosenbach told a cybersecurity forum organized by the Security Innovation Network earlier Thursday. “It doesn’t have to be overly onerous or burdensome in a way that it slows down the economy or hurts bottom lines, but I don’t think we get there without that type of nudge.”
Rosenbach said cybersecurity legislation also is needed to create clear lines of authority and roles and responsibilities for cyber defense ahead of time, before the government has to react to a major incident.
That view is informed in part by his experience as a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he worked during the period when Congress was debating an overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That furious debate was prompted only after the New York Times disclosed a previously-secret NSA wiretapping program.
“We spent a lot of time trying to reform FISA to put in a legal framework that would allow the government to do the things we needed to do in terms of surveillance and warning that were very important. But it was very difficult to do because the way it came to us was one morning in the New York Times, there was a front-page story about a terrorist surveillance program that was probably outside the law,” he said. “The learning point here is that there are really important things we need to do on cybersecurity, but we need to do them within the law. We need to do that now, proactively, so we’re not in a catch-up game where something really bad happens and Congress has to do something in a haphazard way.”
On cyber, on sequestration, on the budget and on the confirmation of Gen. Joe Dunford, DoD’s nominee to be the new commander of forces in Afghanistan, Panetta said Congress has a big agenda and not much time.
“It’s one that requires Democrats and Republicans to work together,” Panetta said. “After a tough national election, the American people, I think, will expect both parties to roll up their sleeves, work together to solve the problems solving the nation, and to protect our national security.”