WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and seven of his predecessors are urging Congress to quickly pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling, warning that defaulting on the nation's debt would pose catastrophic consequences for the military.
In a statement Wednesday, Austin said that defaulting would "undermine the economic strength on which our national security rests" and that "it would also seriously harm our service members and their families."
"I would have no authority or ability to ensure that our service members, civilians, or contractors would be paid in full or on time," Austin said.
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Austin added that benefits for 2.4 million military retirees and 400,000 survivors would be at risk and that federal contractors could have their payments delayed, and he warned that defaulting would risk undermining America's reputation internationally, as well as "the stature of the U.S. dollar."
"Our service members and Department of Defense civilians live up to their commitments," Austin said. "My hope is that, as a nation, we will come together to ensure we meet our obligations to them, without delay or disruption."
Former defense secretaries issued a similar message Wednesday, arguing in a letter to congressional leaders that "it would be tragic to allow partisanship to now deny those critical resources essential to protecting our national security."
The former Cabinet members also said that a default could halt payments to members of the military and that it is unclear whether they would ever be repaid. The U.S., they added, should not ask its all-volunteer military to serve without pay.
"Congress can avoid this outcome by agreeing simply — as it has roughly 80 times before — to authorize the government to pay bills it has already incurred," they wrote. "This decision by Congress would not authorize a single cent of new spending; it would merely serve as an agreement to pay debts for money we have already spent, including on national security programs."
The letter was signed by former defense secretaries William Perry, William Cohen, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Ashton Carter and James Mattis, who represent a mix of Republican and Democratic administrations. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican who also served as defense secretary, signed the letter later.
Congress is at an impasse over the debt ceiling, and Democrats, who control both the House and the Senate, are trying to come up with a plan to lift it before the Oct. 18 deadline. Biden administration officials have warned that the government is expected to exhaust all of its extraordinary measures to keep the ceiling suspended by that date.
Senate Republicans refuse to pass a debt ceiling increase and have told Democrats that they need to do it on their own. Democrats, however, are struggling to come to a legislative solution that would allow them to do that.