WASHINGTON Fifteen former top U.S. national security officials urged lawmakers on Tuesday to put the United States on a sustainable fiscal path and avert automatic spending cuts that start in January, warning that Washington's global leadership was at stake.
The officials, who span eight presidential administrations and include former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright and George Shultz, said they had formed a coalition to underscore the need for elected leaders to act.
"Not only has the passage of time exacerbated some of the economic problems, it has revealed a perhaps equally dangerous political one: Our inability to grapple with pressing fiscal challenges represents nothing less than a crisis in our democratic order," said retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the coalition.
Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the coalition was urging Congress to avert the "fiscal cliff" looming at the end of the year, when taxes are due to rise for all wage earners and $1 trillion in automatic government spending cuts over a decade go into force.
He said the group also was pressing for substantial deficit reduction over the decade, wanted to see tax reforms to raise more revenue and was encouraging lawmakers to put entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security on a sustainable, long-term path.
"We must avoid driving our country over the fiscal cliff. No partisan ideology is worth the cost to our nation," Mullen said. "But just averting the disaster and kicking the can on the tough structural decisions needed to place our economy on a sound footing for the future is not enough."
Mullen and others said the Defense Department, which was directed to cut $487 billion in projected spending under last year's Budget Control Act, would have to be prepared to trim back further.
The Pentagon "should and will take its share of cuts, but it has to be done very carefully," said former Senator John Warner, a past head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Former Senator Sam Nunn said the Pentagon had three critical areas to address to control spending - healthcare costs, retirement spending and procurement inefficiency.
Defense healthcare and personnel costs have been rising at an unsustainable rate in recent years, and the Pentagon has had difficulty with spiraling costs in some of its major weapons-development programs.
"We have entitlements within the defense budget now which are comparable to the entitlements that all of us know that we've got to deal with outside of the defense budget," Nunn said.
The former officials appealed for voters to press their lawmakers to reach an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff and seize the moment to begin fixing the country's long-term financial problems.
Warner said those who will "benefit the most, have the most at stake" needed to "communicate now like you've never communicated before with your member of Congress."
The group - the Coalition for Fiscal and National Security - also includes former Defense Secretaries Harold Brown, Frank Carlucci and Robert Gates, former Senator Ike Skelton, former national security adviser Sandy Berger, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)