It was probably the most ballyhooed congressional hearing on defense for the year. As the monthly economic news continues to show poor job growth, and as the elections heat up, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon, and defense contractor Lockheed-Martin saw a major opportunity to protect the Pentagon budget and their bottom line. On Wednesday, just as the House of Representatives was about to debate the 2013 Department of Defense Appropriations bill, McKeon held a big hearing with Lockheed and other industry representatives to explain why the American economy could not possibly stomach the $55 billion in defense cuts set to occur in January, as required by last summer's Budget Control Act and the failure of the congressional "Super Committee" to cut a broad budget deal.
To heighten fear of the so-called "sequester," McKeon and Lockheed have been arguing that an obscure piece of legislation called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act requires contractors to send out notices of impending pink slips to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of defense industry workers. And because of what they maintain is the WARN Act's 60-day advance-notice requirement, those warnings would come just a few days before the November elections. The only possible rescue from the predictable panic among politicians, especially Democrats, would be to undo the $55 billion in automatic cuts to the defense budget and save the jobs. Or that's been the idea.
But leaving nothing to chance, the day before the hearing, the defense manufacturers trotted out yet another study arguing that the sequester would cost over a million jobs in defense and related work; former Vice President Richard Cheney was brought into Washington to chime in on how destructive the Pentagon budget cuts would be; Lockheed's testimony was leaked to the Washington Post to produce an article published the morning of the hearing to soften up any reluctant politicians; and press conferences abounded.
All the usual hot rhetoric was rebroadcast in excess. To supplement Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's memorable description of the sequester scenario as "doomsday," the president of the manufacturer's mouthpiece, the Aerospace Industries Association's Marion Blakey, called the alleged impending lay-offs "Armageddon." Describing his own hearing as "probably one of the most important hearings I can remember," McKeon chimed in with "catastrophic" (another Panetta term) and termed the Obama administration's purported lack of concern about this looming event a "cavernous silence."
I fully expected that these crude tactics would be effective and that the Democrats at the hearing would be stampeded into clamoring for the sequester to be repealed with little to no concession from the Republicans.
I was quite wrong: From the McKeon/Lockheed perspective, the hearing was a complete bust.