McCain Emerges as Pentagon’s Last Hope to Avert Sequester

By Sandra I. Erwin

Sen. Tim Kaine

Pentagon pleas for relief from drastic spending cuts are getting scant attention as the lame-duck Congress becomes enmeshed in partisan fighting over immigration reform and the threat of a government shutdown.

But there is still fresh hope for defense in the new Congress when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., takes the gavel as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"With McCain, you have a very, very vigorous opponent to sequestration," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-VA, told a gathering of defense industry executives this week.

Kaine, who has served with McCain on Armed Services, also firmly opposes the automatic spending cuts, or sequester. He urged defense executives to join forces with McCain. "He fundamentally believes that sequestration is harming our nation's defense," Kaine said.

Although McCain has frequently hammered defense contractors for mismanaging military programs and overspending, the industry now needs to view him as a partner, Kaine added. "Having a Republican chairman who is vigorously passionate against sequestration is very important," he said. "McCain will be a good ally."

Defense CEOs have had an uneasy relationship with McCain. As the ranking Republican on Armed Services over the past eight years, he has called for the termination of big-ticket military programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the USS Ford aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ship. He also has chastised the Pentagon for poor stewardship of procurement dollars.

“Once a program reaches a certain point and has enough constituencies around the country, you can't stop it," McCain said in 2012. "Some of these programs need to be stopped.” And he has condemned corrupt business practices in the defense sector. “We have a revolving door between the Pentagon and industry. … There is an environment where overruns are not a major concern."

Despite such disapproval, defense industry officials are encouraged by the prospect that McCain might be able to sway votes against sequester in fiscal year 2016.

“Sen. McCain has crossover with the Foreign Relations Committee and will be extremely active on national security policy,” said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the board of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Punaro said the industry is optimistic about the new GOP leadership in both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. McCain and incoming HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, are highly experienced on defense issues, with a combined 52 years on the authorizing committees.

“They have dealt with increases and decreases in budgets, previous drawdowns, base closures, numerous conflicts and wars, five different administrations, 10 secretaries of defense and 10 Joint Chiefs of Staff chairs,” said Punaro. “Both have had to cooperate and confront when necessary.” Of note to defense industry, he said, is that while McCain and Thornberry have different leadership styles, they share common goals to repeal sequester, improve acquisition, increase oversight, and ensure the relevance and timeliness of authorizers.

Pentagon officials have not spoken publicly about the new leadership on Capitol Hill, but have ramped up the rhetoric against sequester and have called on the lame-duck Congress to replace the continuing resolution that funds the government through Dec. 11 with a full-year appropriation. It now appears unlikely that Congress will pass an “omnibus” appropriations bill in December to replace the CR.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said the military badly needs more money and funding stability as national security crises escalate. "We need additional top line for emerging and additional requirements,” he said Nov. 19 at the Defense One summit in Washington, D.C.

Dempsey said military leaders have to “convince members of Congress not only that the Defense Department needs more money, but that it must begin to operate under a new set of rules than the current budgetary deadlock allows.”

The Obama administration’s defense budget request for 2016-2020 exceeds the congressionally mandated spending limits by $110 billion. If Congress rejects that request and enforces the caps set by law, military budgets would go up by $43 billion over the next five years. The Pentagon has insisted that even that increase would put the military in a bind because it does not cover the rate of inflation.

Punaro noted that in the 114th Congress, the Republican House and Senate will have more conservative conferences, which means any budget decisions will have to be deficit neutral. “There is not as much leverage to force policy changes or block changes through the debt ceiling, reconciliation or appropriations process as either side seems to think.”

Even if the Pentagon gets more money next year, higher appropriations alone do not remove the sequester caps. That would require a bipartisan deal.
The incoming GOP senators ran campaigns of “no compromise,” Punaro said. “They replace Democrats who were punished for their perceived support of the president. Will these Republicans senators now say, ‘Let’s compromise with the president?’”

In his remarks to industry CEOs, Kaine lamented how profoundly dysfunctional the legislative process has become, to the point of undermining the United States’ standing in the world. “A Congress that does nothing,” Kaine said, “sends a message of national decline."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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