Lawmakers said Tuesday's House Armed Services Committee hearing on long-term defense strategy planning was a perfect goodbye for departing chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, given his big-picture focus on the military's future.
But, perhaps more fitting, the hearing quickly turned into yet another event to bash sequestration, a recurring and frustrating theme for the committee over the last three years.
Lawmakers and defense review panel members took turns predicting irreversible harm if Congress doesn't address sequestration in coming months, saying the budget cuts dig too deep into needed training and modernization accounts to keep the military ready for future fights.
Former Pentagon policy chief Michèle Flournoy called the cuts "a threat to national security" and a clear mistake in hindsight. Eric Edelman, who held the same post before Flournoy, said the spending restrictions have created "a strategy driven by the budget" rather than the "strategy-driven budget" that the military needs.
Sequestration, passed by Congress in 2011, called for $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over 10 years split evenly over defense and nondefense accounts.
Lawmakers reached a budget deal two years later to delay some effects, but not to repeal the cuts entirely, leaving the Pentagon leaders with what they call an unfixable cap on future spending that has already led to restrictions on equipment replacement, reduced training programs and long-term end-strength cuts.
Flournoy said serious conversations about military response to future global threats can't realistically move forward given the budget uncertainty. She challenged lawmakers to "look the challenge in the face and do something about it."
But members of both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have been pushing that same message for years, with little success.
McKeon said his successors will have to find a way to "build a broader consensus for reversing the cuts to defense and the damage that has been done to our national security and standing in the world." Ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he wants an immediate repeal vote in Congress, something he has called for several times.
But Republicans and Democrats have been stymied on ways to reconcile how to make up for the lost savings if sequestration is repealed, preventing any progress on the issue. GOP leaders have worked to shift those cuts almost entirely to domestic programs, while Democrats have pushed for a mix of tax increases and reduced savings.
Since the election, Republican lawmakers have voiced optimism that the GOP takeover of the Senate will break the logjam on the budget cuts, allowing for new repeal plans to reach the president's desk.
But Democrats in the Senate still can filibuster any unpalatable repeal plans, and neither side has given any indication that the looming military budget problems have forced them to change their political positions.
McKeon said educating new members on the depth of the problem will be key to finding a solution. Even three years in, he said, many colleagues don't view the hundreds of billions in reduced defense spending as a threat, despite repeated pushes by the committee to show the danger.
Last month, incoming committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said sequestration "needs to be solved" and will be a top priority of the armed services panel next year.
McKeon, in his departing committee remarks, said he hopes those efforts will be more successful than the last three years have been.