Pentagon vs. Congress: Budget Blame Game Heats Up
Defense Department leaders continue to plead for Congress to end the partisan bickering and pass a proper budget.
“We need some budgetary stability out of the Congress,” said Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale.
The fiscal rollercoaster is wreaking havoc on the military and civilian workers, Hale said Nov. 14 at a Defense One conference in Washington, D.C. “This uncertainty is unparalleled."
“We are watching, hopefully, for things to stabilize,” he said. Sequester cuts and furloughs have been especially hard on civilian workers, Hale added. “Civilians are wondering whether they are going to have a job, and whether they want to have a job with us.”
The Pentagon, like most of the federal government, is operating under a temporary funding measure that expires Jan. 15. Stopgap deals have been the norm for the past two years as Congress became more ideologically divided over spending and taxes. The Pentagon does not function well under these continuing resolutions and needs a full-year line-by-line appropriations bill, officials said.
If sequester is triggered in January, the Pentagon will have to cut $20 billion abruptly, before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. That could result in more furloughs, layoffs and major disruptions to military operations, training and equipment maintenance. Under sequester, defense spending in 2014 would plummet from the administration's request of $552 billion to $498 billion.
“DoD cannot responsibly, efficiently, and effectively plan, strategize, and implement national security policies with this cloud of uncertainty continuing to hang over it,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week. “Congress must act to provide the Department with time and flexibility to implement spending reductions more strategically.”
Even though Congress passed the Budget Control Act that mandated the cuts, some lawmakers refuse to take the blame for the Pentagon’s troubles.
Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and Adam Kinzinger, of California and Illinois, respectively, shifted the responsibility to Defense Department leaders for failing to inform Congress on the military’s true needs and plans for the future.
“What we need in Congress is that trust and that honesty that has been lacking from the military leadership,” Hunter said at the conference. “Let's have a defense budget that matches a real strategy based on a threat analysis,” he said. “That has not been done. Or if it has been done, it has been kept from Congress.”
Kinzinger criticized the administration for spearheading a “strategic retreat from the Middle East, which has been followed by chaos and terror.” The military is naïvely planning for a future when there will be no ground wars, he said. “We'd be fools if we thought we are never going to have a ground war again,” said Kinzinger. “Every time we do that we find ourselves in a situation when we need tanks and fighters.”
Hunter finds fault in civilian and military leaders for the “disconnect” between and Defense Department and Congress. “It's arrogance on the part of DoD and military leadership for not wanting to work with Congress,” he said. “A wall has been put up between Congress and the Defense Department, and it has been exacerbated by the current administration.”
Defense officials have failed to answer fundamental questions such as what threats the military faces in the future and how it plans to confront those threats, said Hunter. The sequester is aggravating deeper problems in how the Defense Department seeks resources from Congress, said Hunter. “If you want to have a good strategy and fund it, you have to answer these questions,” he insisted. “They either have not done the research or are not being forthcoming with Congress.”
Asked to respond to Hunter's accusations, Hale chose to not take the bait. “I don’t remember ever turning down any request for meetings,” he said. “Maybe we don’t know what information they’d like to have," he added. “I’m not aware that we have failed to provide information.”
Capitol Hill insiders see such public finger pointing as further proof of a broken system that is becoming the new normal in Washington.
“The absence of legislation — and Congress not making choices — are significant contributors to this sense of crisis in defense spending,” said Steven Cortese, former staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
One big problem for the Defense Department is that Congress no longer feels “connected” to defense bills for various reasons, he said. One is that there is no clarity on national defense priorities.
“During the Cold War there was a bipartisan consensus about what defense was needed for. … The consensus over the global war on terror is winding down. That is not going be a consensus point under the Budget Control Act structure,” Cortese said Nov. 5 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Another explanation for congressional disengagement from the defense debate, he said, is the absence of “earmarks," which lawmakers used to rely upon to fund projects in their home districts. That hurts the Pentagon in some ways because it makes the discussion over military spending less personal for lawmakers, Cortese said.
In the current environment, the best the Pentagon can hope for is a full-year appropriation for 2014, even if it is less money than it wanted, he said. “Any number is going to work if the right choices are made and people are committed to a coherent, responsible plan.”
The budget process has collapsed, and that has been especially hard on the Defense Department, said Jim Dyer, former staff director of the House Committee on Appropriations. “We have been dragged into the concept of sequestration,” he said. “This is the 'anti-appropriations act.' … Never mind oversight, never might what works, cut everything off and we'll feel good.”
Eliminating earmarks, in hindsight, has backfired on Congress, said Dyer. “It turned over decision making to the Executive Branch.” The evils of earmarks were “hyper exaggerated,” he said. “Now, it's all sticks and no carrots.”
Charles J. Houy, former staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee , said defense spending will become another casualty of the partisan wars, which are magnified by the 24/7 news cycle.
“Small scandals get blown into big scandals, and it makes it difficult to come up with a consensus that says we ought to spend more on defense,” he said. The reality for the Pentagon is that "there is general agreement on the left and right that we ought to cut defense spending. That is different than what we've seen in the past.”
Speaking Nov. 14 at the Defense One event, Hagel said he is optimistic that cooler heads will prevail.
“Congress has to be a partner in this,” he said. “The president can’t unilaterally make decisions on what we are going to do without appropriations from Congress,” Hagel said. “We want input from Congress. … Democracies work based on consensus and compromise.” Sequestration and government shutdowns, said Hagel, do not equal governing.