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Chronic partisanship in Congress poses the biggest risk to America's economy, national security and political life, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in a speech Wednesday.
In his last major policy address before he retires this month, the Pentagon chief blasted lawmakers for a lack of leadership that has produced an escalating series of budget crises.
The most urgent task facing political leaders is to overcome "partisan dysfunction in Congress that poses a threat to our quality of life, to our national security, to our economy, to our ability to address the problems that confront this country," said Panetta, who served as a lawmaker from California before holding senior posts under two Democratic presidents.
"Today, crisis drives policy," he told an audience of students at Georgetown University in the US capital.
"It has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse and then react to the crisis."
But he said there was a high price to be paid for inaction.
"And the price to be paid is that you lose the trust of the American people. You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of this nation to be able to govern itself."
Panetta's tough speech comes as Congress faces a March 1 deadline to broker a budget deal to avert multi-billion dollar budget cuts, with military funding due to take a major hit.
The Pentagon chief, who served as CIA director before taking over as defense secretary in 2011, renewed his warning that if Congress fails to break the impasse, automatic budget cuts will jeopardize the military's readiness and force cuts to training and maintenance.
Panetta's frustration with the current bitter political climate was evident as he frequently strayed from his prepared text to drive home his point, lamenting that lawmakers apparently no longer knew how to forge compromise.
"I've seen that attitude before," recalling his days in Bill Clinton's White House when Republican lawmakers helped force a government shutdown.
"And, when they did it in 1995, it badly hurt the American people. And it created a political backlash that damaged those who were blamed for that crisis.
"The same damn thing is going to happen again if they allow this to occur."