HASC Readiness Chair Hoping for Renewed Focus on Sequestration After Midterms

By Valerie Insinna

The chairman of the House Armed Service Committee’s subcommittee on readiness said he was optimistic that Congress will be able to protect defense funding and prevent sequestration in 2016.
Key to this effort will explaining the importance of military spending to Republican budget hawks and the new representatives who will take office after midterm elections this November, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told reporters July 15.

“What I’ve been doing is getting members out and saying, ‘Look at what your military does,’” he said. After five Republicans on the readiness work group toured an aircraft carrier this weekend, they better understood the need for continued funding for the defense budget, he said.

"The Department of Defense has given and given and given," he said. If sequestration is included, the cuts would come about $1.3 trillion. "There's no other place in the budget that has [gotten] anywhere close to putting those dollars on the table,” he said.

Developing a defense budget should be a strategy driven process in which Congress appropriates funding based on the threat environment, but that isn’t happening, Wittman said. Instead, the spending caps of the Budget Control Act and Bipartisan Budget Act are dictating defense budget levels.

“We say, 'Hey, here's the budget number, and let's fit a strategy to that budget,’” he said. “The [Quadrennial Defense Review] essentially does that.'

Overseas contingency operations funding — a temporary defense fund primarily for operations in Afghanistan — continues to be a source of confusion for many members of Congress, Wittman said.

The Obama administration requested $58.6 billion in OCO funding for fiscal year 2015. As the United States’ partial withdrawal from Afghanistan grows nearer, lawmakers need to figure out how to migrate OCO funds into the base budget.

“We're trying to get folks to understand that a significant amount of those dollars actually go to things that are enduring missions” that will still be necessary to fund after the United States leaves Afghanistan, he said. “If you're going to do anti-piracy, which is one of those historical naval missions ... OCO dollars go to fund that.” Once that mechanism disappears, however, the government will have to find money for those missions in the base budget.

One encouraging sign is that there seems to be a growing interest in the defense budget, he said. A congressional briefing held last week on OCO funding attracted about 50 staffers.

The midterm election will likely prevent the House and Senate from approving a defense budget before the end of the fiscal year, Whittman predicted. In that case, a short-term continuing resolution will probably be passed to keep the federal government funded until the new Congress can put together an omnibus budget bill, he said.

Still, Congress is better positioned to pass a budget in fiscal 2015, unlike previous years, where it relied on continuing resolutions for funding through an entire fiscal year, he said. “On the House side, we're now through the sixth … of the appropriations bills, so we're a lot further along than we have been at any time in the recent past.”

As soon as Congress climbs over that hurdle, it will have to contend with the fiscal year 2016 budget. "Next year, we're going to have some really, really vigorous debates and tough decisions to make, especially if sequester looms,” he said. New representatives will have to quickly be brought up to speed on many national defense issues, including the possible impacts of sequester.

"With those budget caps, you're going to have to battle for dollars within those budget caps or come up with ways to gain revenue or savings elsewhere," he said.

In order to reap the savings needed to support readiness, military officials have proposed retiring entire aircraft fleets and cutting its number of cruisers and possibly an aircraft carrier.

Wittman agreed that Congress needs to make tough decisions about those platforms, but said there must be a balance between saving money and retaining capability. For instance, he supports the retirement of the A-10 Warthog, which will eventually be replaced by the F-35 joint strike fighter. However, Wittman maintains that there are no other Navy ships that can fill the roles of cruisers and aircraft carriers.

“With all the things that we want to do and need to do around the world, you need presence, and the way you establish that presence and the ability to project power is through this naval force,” he said.

Wittman also opposes enacting another round of base realignment and closures. Actual cost savings from the 2005 BRAC aren’t expected until at least 2018, so if the services want to close installations, they need to prove that they can save money in a timely manner, he said.

“We’re still determining ... the end strength of our military. ... We’re still doing an overseas base assessment to figure out what should our basing overseas be. So this really is a situation of doing things in a logical progression,” he said.

“In this year’s [National Defense Authorization Act], we did put language in there for each of the service branches to note where they had excess capacity or excess capitalization and then how they would propose liquidating that excess capitalization and then save that money within a six year window,” he said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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