Carter Backs Proposals to Cut Defense Bloat
Almostevery Washington think tank andseveral blue-ribbon panels over the past two years have called on the Pentagon to cut staff bloat and consider sweeping reforms in areas such as weapons procurement, military compensation, excess facilities, healthcare and retirement benefits.
Whereas such proposals have fallen on deaf years on Capitol Hill, thePentagon’s top leadership is ready to take on these politically tough decisions, said Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.
“We have to make significant changes in compensation and efficiency,” he said June 12 at the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security. “I want to align myself with the latest CNAS report and other think tank studies that stress this,” Carter said.
The CNAS study, titled, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Defense Spending,” suggested that a combination of personnel, administrative and business reforms could slash Pentagon overhead costs by nearly $500 billion over the next decade.
But without congressional backing, none of these reforms will ever get off the ground. Recent attempts by Pentagon leaders to close military bases that are no longer needed and to propose revisions to healthcare and retirement benefits all have been rebuffed.
Carter acknowledged that the current political environment makes reform efforts impracticable. The only forces that are driving change in the Pentagon these days are budget cuts, he said. Carter is leading a “strategic choices and management review” that is expected to deliver to Congress a spending plan for 2014 that reflects the automatic sequester cuts that went into effect March 1. The sequester takes $50 billion off the top line of the defense budget every year through 2021. Carter’s team will offer lawmakers three choices as they consider the president’s request for fiscal year 2014: One is the actual president’s request, which ignores the sequester cuts. A second plan would cut $50 billion, and a third would propose a budget that falls somewhere in between.
“This is about preparing, and teeing up the choices,” Carter said.
The Pentagon already is scrambling to cut $37 billion from fiscal year 2013 spending, which must be accomplished by Sept. 30.
As he has in almost every public appearance this year, Carter blasted Congress for creating chaotic conditions for military budget planning, and for standing in the way as the Pentagon tries to shed inefficient programs and unnecessary overhead.
“In today's Washington, you don't get predictability or stability,” he said.
The strategic choices review panel believes that significant reforms are needed to cut bloat, he said. Military and civilian compensation, although political hot potatos, must come under closer scrutiny as those accounts continue to grow unchecked, experts have said. “The key question is what does it take to attract and retain the kind of people who make the military strong?” Carter asked. “We need to make balanced adjustments.”
Carter also called out Congress for allowing political agendas to take precedence over national defense. “We are not feeling the recognition of the need to keep a strong defense,” he said.
Former undersecretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy, also speaking at the CNAS conference, said the Pentagon must accept the reality that it no longer commands the respect on Capitol Hill that it once had. “The politics of these issues have changed,” she said. “There used to be a reliable, bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats that would ultimately protect defense. That no longer exists, largely because of a split within the Republican Party” as a growing faction of the party is determined to cut government spending by any means. “How do you recreate a political coalition that can support smart defense [and] that can support the hard choices we'll have to make?” she asked. The Defense Department alone cannot take on cost-cutting reforms on its own, said Flournoy.
“This is going to have to be a team effort.”
The Defense Department needs “special authorities to offer retirement incentives, disestablish positions” and make tradeoffs so it can protect investments in research, technology and maintain force readiness, she said. “Defense needs the authority to go after inefficiencies.”