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Ashton Carter: Superhero of the Sequester

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says he’ll give back part of his paycheck if the sequester leads to furloughs at the Pentagon. Why won’t more politicians follow his lead? By Michelle Cottle.

Raise your hand if you can tell me who Ashton Carter is.

Wrong! He is not the hot but mediocre model turned actor who rose to fame via a mélange of cheesy TV shows, clever self-promotion, and a seven-year marriage to Demi Moore.

Ashton Carter is, rather, the current deputy secretary of defense of these United States—and something of an anti-celebrity. Graying, bland, and bespectacled, he looks largely indistinguishable from thousands of other frumpy middle-aged white guys running the government. Likewise, Carter’s C.V. is the meaty but unsexy tribute to overachievement that you’d expect from a national-security überwonk: Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics; Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy; member of the Defense Science Board; member of the Defense Policy Board; member of the International Security Advisory Board. Counted among The New Republic’s 2011 list of “Washington’s Most Powerful, Least Famous People,” the dep sec is the sort of guy who makes think tankers’ hearts flutter but whom the average American wouldn’t give a second glance if he walked around trailed by the Marine Corps band.

On Valentine’s Day, however, Carter did something that really should win the love and awe of all Americans: he emerged as a rare class act in the government’s self-inflicted sequestration calamity.

In his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the repercussions of meat-cleavering the Pentagon budget, Carter explained that civilian personnel would need to be furloughed an average of one day per week, resulting in a demoralizing 20 percent pay cut. “I’ve promised that when that happens,” he informed the committee, “I’m going to give back a fifth of my paycheck to the Treasury for those last seven months if we have to furlough people.”

Read that simple statement again and consider for a moment how sensible—and how virtually unheard of—this sort of voluntary shared burden is. Not just in Washington, where the preening clowns who play chicken with the federal budget are among the last to feel the economic pinch, but in the broader business world. Too many executives, even lousy ones, grab those fat bonuses (or at worst absurd golden parachutes) even as they tank their companies—and, on some occasions, the broader economy. Accountability and sacrifice are for worker bees and suckers.

And, it now seems, Deputy Secretary Carter.

Keep in mind that Carter, as a Senate-confirmed appointee, is not in the firing line of furloughs. The entire DoD could crumble around him, and he’d still be pulling that paycheck. But as the dep sec explained to Sen. Lindsey Graham: “I don’t think it’s right that they lose one fifth of their paycheck and I don’t, even though I can’t be sequestered because I’m a presidential appointee.”

Better still, Carter urged that all members of the executive and legislative branches “do the same.”

Clearly impressed (or at least shamed) by Carter’s public display of decency, Graham quickly embraced the idea: “Well, we can’t be sequestered either. But I think it would be very wise for us to follow your lead as members of the United States Senate, that if we can’t figure this out with the president, that all of us ought to follow your model, and for every day that sequestration’s in effect, the president should have his pay docked and we should have our pay docked, just to show that, you know, we don’t live completely on a different planet, which some people think we do.”

Meeting Carter’s challenge does indeed seem like the least that lawmakers could do, given that they are the ones failing to do their jobs on such an epic scale. And, to his credit, Graham’s spokesman, Kevin Bishop, confirms that the senator “will return some of his salary as well.” Of course, Bishop ignored the question of exactly how much of Graham’s salary would be returned or how energetically the senator might push for others to follow his lead.

Still, the fact that Carter was able to goose even one lawmaker into putting a bit of skin in the game is impressive. Forget glamour and fame, in this instance the dep sec may come as close as this town gets to a superhero.

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