Congress, Pentagon Will Have to Agree to Disagree on Budget Issues

By Sandra I. Erwin

By Sandra I. Erwin

Just two weeks before the Obama administration submits its budget proposal to Congress for fiscal year 2016, at least on the defense side, the battle lines have been drawn.

The Pentagon can forget scrapping the A-10 attack aircraft, taking warships out of service or closing any more military bases in the United States. The military, too, will have to keep funding the remanufacturing of main battle tanks and continue to buy other hardware it says it doesn’t need.

“Sometimes their priorities are just plain wrong,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Thornberry said he respects the difficult job of Defense Department leaders who have to make “tough choices” following five years of steep budget cuts. But Congress, he said, is not going to rubber stamp any budgets and will put its foot down on any proposals to “give things away” that might be needed in the future, including aging hardware that the military says it can’t afford to maintain.
The Pentagon should be reminded that Congress has a constitutional authority to determine the “size, shape and soul of the military,” Thornberry said Jan. 20 at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s not clear that everyone understands our constitutional system. Congress is sometimes criticized for exercising its proper role in defense.”

In a speech that sought to send a stern message to the Pentagon about who’s in charge, Thornberry defended lawmakers’ right to be “imperfect” and “parochial.”

Congress consists of 535 “human beings from all over the country, from many walks of life,” he said. Members are accused of directing the Army to buy tanks to satisfy donors and lobbyists. The reality, said Thornberry, is that “we make a judgment call” to ensure the manufacturing plant is not shut down.

Further, the military has shown it can’t be trusted to make sound decisions, he said. The Air Force, for instance, one year recommended nixing production of the Global Hawk drone and, instead, deploying 50-year-old U-2 manned aircraft. The next year it reversed course. The Navy similarly proposed to retire seven cruisers and later changed its mind in favor of temporarily mothballing 11 ships until it has money to modernize them. Thornberry called out the Navy for not funding the refueling of the George Washington aircraft carrier, even though the ship has 25 years of service life left.

“The administration has proposed retiring a number of ships in recent years, arguing that modern ships are more capable,” said Thornberry. “That’s true. But each ship can still only be at one place at one time.” He then blasted the Air Force for asking to retire the A-10, and a few months later sending it to fly attack missions in Iraq and Syria.

Defense officials, for their part, insist they have no other choice but to shed equipment and infrastructure so they can free up money to pay for “force readiness” priorities like training and maintenance. After Congress passed the budget law in 2011 that set strict caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending, the military has had to make these difficult choices, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

“Congress restricted our tough choices regarding the retiring or the reducing of aging force structure,” she said last week at a Pentagon news conference. Unless the spending caps are lifted, Congress is putting the Air Force in a financial bind by forbidding these cutbacks, she said. “We are going to be asking the Congress of course to eliminate sequestration, we will renew that call, as well as to allow us to get rid of excess base infrastructure. And we will once again ask for the authority to divest some of our older aircraft in order to free up money to plow back into people, readiness, and modernization.”

For the Air Force, retiring the venerable A-10 is not an “emotional issue, it's a sequestration-driven decision,” said Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “We don't have enough money to fund all of the things that we currently have in our force structure.”

James added: “If we had a lot more money, I mean a lot more money, we could do it all. But of course, we're not going to have a lot more money. So we have to make choices.”

Thornberry agrees with the Pentagon that the military does need more money, but he recognizes that lifting the budget caps will be a steep uphill battle.

The Defense Department's baseline budget (not including war funding) has dropped by 21 percent since 2010. “That has to have an impact,” Thornberry said. He sees issues like funding for the A-10 and for aircraft carrier refueling as potential catalysts that might propel fiscal hawks to support the repeal of the Budget Control Act. “It just adds a sense of urgency that we have to get this budget on a more reasonable footing,” he said. “Are there going to be difficult choices? Of course. But with the volatility in the world situation right now, most of us want to be pretty careful about giving things away because it’s going to be really hard to get them back. … If we give up a base or a training range, it’s gone forever.”

Undoing the sequester would require 218 votes in the House, 60 in the Senate and the president’s signature. That might seem unrealistic, but it’s not impossible, Thornberry said. “I don’t know that anyone has a magic formula to do that.”

He is confident that his committee can help influence the debate by educating members on national security issues. “We’ve got to do a better job helping other members understand why it’s important. That’s on our shoulders,” he said. “I really believe most members agree that sequestration for defense needs to be fixed. But there is no agreement on how to do it.”

Thornberry said he expects military officials to be candid about their funding needs, even if they sidestep the party line. “We expect the chiefs [of the military services] to shoot straight with us,” he said. However, “I don’t think it’s fair for them to become advocates of our positions, especially if they contradict the president’s. But we have to have the information. Their obligation is not just to the president but to the country and to Congress.”

When the president unveils his budget request Feb. 2, Republicans like Thornberry are likely to be put in a tough spot because Obama is expected to request $68 billion more in discretionary spending than is allowed by the Budget Control Act. For defense, that would be $34 billion above the $516 billion cap by the BCA.

Most Republicans do not want to be seen as supporting the president, but they are also unlikely to vote for a budget that is lower than the administration’s request, given their traditional pro-defense orientation, said Bloomberg Government analyst Cameron Leuthy. A likely outcome is a “mini-deal” that would give the Pentagon some additional money and also satisfy the deficit-hawk wing of the GOP.


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