Pentagon in Wait-and-See Mode as Committees Draft Budget Blueprint
By Sandra I. Erwin
Has the Pentagon done enough to convince Congress to bust the spending limits it set in law?
Apparently not, as the Senate and House Budget Committees are expected to pass spending plans that keep those caps in place. But the Pentagon will continue to press its case, said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter intends to keep up the rhetoric, Kendall said last week at a Bloomberg Government conference in Arlington, Virginia.
"He is thinking about how to best explain to people that sequestration is a major problem, and not something that we can absorb and keep on going, Kendall said. "He's working on how exactly to express that."
Three fiscal years since the passage of the Budget Control Act, the Pentagon recognizes that its message has not resonated with an austerity-minded majority of Congress, and that its initial strategy misfired. "There was a perception that we 'cried wolf,'" Kendall said. "Under Defense Secretary Panetta, we were very vocal" but Congress still did not budge and the Pentagon took a steep across-the-board cut in 2013. The impact of the cuts, however, was not immediately noticeable and critics have called out the Pentagon for using hyperbole.
"Sequestration is like death by 1,000 cuts," said Kendall. "We are still dealing with the readiness implications from 2013."
The Obama administration is proposing a federal budget for 2016 that exceeds legally mandated limits on discretionary spending by $74 billion, of which $35 billion is for defense. Getting more money for defense will require an agreement to also lift the spending caps for non-defense agencies. Such a deal might be doable in the Senate but will be a much tougher sell in the House where there is a stalwart bloc of deficit hawks.
Panelists at the Bloomberg conference offered mixed views on what happens in the coming months as a deeply divided Congress tries to reconcile conflicting agendas. Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Major General Arnold Punaro, CEO of The Punaro Group, said the Pentagon is unlikely to get 100 percent of the increase proposed by the administration, but it will likely be allowed to spend somewhere above the ceiling set by the BCA.
Pro-defense Republican senators have proposed adding a "reserve" fund to the Pentagon's 2016 budget, a budget trick that would the GOP to claim its military funding proposal is not lower than the president's.
Republicans, including those who are running for the White House in 2016, are criticizing the president for being weak on national security, Punaro said. "Are they going to appropriate less money for defense than the commander in chief asked for?" The prospect of finding themselves in such political bind would compel GOP leaders to increase defense spending.
Also working in the Pentagon's favor is that the world is more unstable, and global security much shakier than it was in 2011 when the BCA was passed, Punaro said. "The dynamic today is different."
Others see a diametrically opposed scenario. "I'm very pessimistic about the BCA," said Nora Bensahel, a scholar at American University's School of International Service. The deficit-minded Republicans will not go along with higher spending, she said. Congressional defense hawks "are not going to have a lot of success getting their colleagues onboard."
Bensahel recently testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee along with other national security experts. She said she was stunned by how many questions posed by committee members were about their difficulties getting through to the budget hawks. "Their questions to us, the expert witnesses, boiled down to, 'How do we convince our colleagues in the Senate that defense is important?'" Bensahel said. "Even the members of that committee who are so dedicated to this are frustrated."
Some members want to get rid of the caps, "but I don't see a deal with enough votes," she added. The likely outcome will be some "back door" technique to give more money to the Pentagon such as the war budget, which is not counted under the BCA caps.
Among defense industry investors, meanwhile, there is widespread expectation that military spending will go up, even though the politics seem difficult. Since the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and the passage of the BCA, the climate has changed in favor of higher defense spending, said Roman Schweizer, defense budget and policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities. “Public opinion is changing about the environment and about security spending,” he said in an interview. “Two years ago people were saying that the budget would get cut below the BCA. No one is mentioning that now. It has slipped from the discussion. There's recognition that the BCA is the minimum. The question is not if but by how much it will go up.”
Photo: Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (Credit: Scott Rekdal)