Can Washington Get Us Back on Track?

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.
A tsunami of bad news lately leaves one gasping for breath and feeling more than a bit disoriented. It’s the kind of breathlessness one feels after walking up several flights of stairs. 

It didn’t have to be that way, and that seems to be the theme running through many of the nation’s problems today.

The origins of the current fiscal and political crisis that is affecting the defense community can be traced back to the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the United States began to gear up for two major wars.

The proverbial fuze was lit with the invention of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budgets to fund the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. 

It seemed like a good idea at the time — to separate and clearly identify spending for the military’s “base” budget and for wartime operations. But everyone soon got a bit sloppy. The accounts over time began to lose clear distinction between what was needed for the base budget and what was needed for war. After the wars, it was anticipated that OCO funding would end. But it was also clearly recognized that OCO appropriations would still be needed after the wars ended to repair military equipment and reset forces back in the United States.

Without OCO dollars, the base would be insufficient for peacetime operations, training and readiness. The contingency operations budgets, further funded the acquisition of new equipment that the services need as they transition to peacetime. A quick termination of OCO money would trap and cut off critical needs regardless of whether they were required for war or peacetime use. So the separation became a distinction without a difference. Additionally, the confusion between OCO and base budgets never anticipated the automatic sequester cuts that are now in effect. This further muddied the issue and complicated the management of the Defense Department’s accounts.

None of this had to happen this way.

That brings us to sequester, the across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Congress in 2013 gave us a “modified” continuing resolution (CR) with sequestration — the worst of all possible outcomes. This would only have worked if the appropriated budget for 2012 had the balance in all accounts perfectly matched to the demands of 2013. But the approved funding was clearly inadequate for 2013. The largest discrepancy appeared in the operations and maintenance accounts of all military services. The Army was the hardest hit.  

To compound this unsatisfactory condition, the president’s proposed budget submitted to Congress for 2014 assumed no sequester, and Congress is marking up a bill that will fail to meet the spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act, thus inviting another CR and sequester for 2014. 

Recall that all this began after a congressional supercommittee was unable to agree on finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years out of a federal spending plan in the neighborhood of $50 trillion. The cost associated with the inefficiency and disruption that defense and non-defense agencies are experiencing will likely exceed that number. Conversations with members of Congress on both sides express the feeling that sequestration is the worst way to do business. Again, this was a self-manufactured crisis that did not have to occur.

The effects of sequester on the military have been well documented: Limited reprogramming authority; unplanned drawdown of research, development and acquisition accounts; diminishing readiness and system availability and unpaid furloughs for government civilians. All of this is bad, but this last one is particularly egregious. The Air Force and Navy had enough funding to avoid civilian furloughs, but the Army did not. Rather than reallocate funds to avoid furloughs for all, the Defense Department declared “one team, one fight,” so civilians of all departments will suffer one furlough day each week through Sept. 30, a total of 11 days beginning July 8.

This is entirely unfair to civilians, but consider also the effect on military troops, especially those who are still fighting. A case in point is the Air Force Material Command, where 75 percent of its 80,000-strong workforce is civilian. What will be the impact on logistics support of 660,000 workdays (20 percent of the workforce) lost through furloughs in the couple of months left in this fiscal year? Multiplied by similar examples in other services, and the damage will be both short and long term. It could take years to recover the readiness sacrificed just in 2013 and 2014.

One wonders if the supercommittee might, in hindsight, reconsider its decision to give up on a budget deal as lawmakers witness the severe consequences of sequester, which were preventable.

There are other issues — and knee jerk reactions to issues — that are not necessarily related to sequester, but do speak to the need for better business practices in government.

One example is widespread restrictions to government conferences flowing from poorly conducted events by the Justice Department, General Services Administration, Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service. These have resulted in burdensome restrictions on Defense Department conferences, even though Defense has a history and track record of professionally conducted conferences.

And the recent controversy over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s deliberate leaking of highly classified NSA operations has propelled Congress to focus on contractors as culprits even though they constitute less than 10 percent of the defense workforce. Most leakers of classified information thus far have been government workers, not contractors. 

We all need to take a deep breath, consider the need to evaluate what has actually happened and ponder the long-term consequences of public policies. It is important to do the right thing for the long run. Short-term fixes that fail to address the underlying problem never work and always introduce inefficiencies that make the problem worse.

The only comfort one can take is the belief that Americans will always rise to the occasion. Sometimes things have to be pretty bad before we react, but once aroused we get it done. We have now arrived at “pretty bad.” One wonders if those who represent the American people are aware of this. We have seen the folly of shortsighted policies. We don’t have to continue down this path.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy

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