The Budget Certainty Congress Denies the Pentagon

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

“Superficial and emotional” was the way retired Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey described the current presidential campaign discussion of military affairs in an interview published in the current, September-October issue of Foreign Affairs.

He’s right. But perhaps even that minimal amount of attention should be paid to the campaigning of House and Senate members, because when it comes to the defense budget, they in the long run are as important as the commander-in-chief.

Dempsey pointed out that when the Pentagon was forced by Congress-passed legislation to cut $750 billion from its budget, the military response to Capitol Hill was, “OK, we can do that; we have 25 percent excess infrastructure, and we’ve got six or seven weapons systems that are aging and largely redundant.”

In the face of such a Pentagon answer, Dempsey said, “The Congress shouldn’t turn around and say, ‘Not in my district,’ or ‘Not my weapons system.’”

But as we all know, that’s just what the Congress had done in the past and continues to do in the fiscal 2017 Defense Authorization and Appropriations Bills now before the legislators.

Pentagon officials have calculated that by 2019, if nothing is done to remedy the infrastructure situation, the Army will have 33 percent excess capacity at its bases and facilities; the Air Force excess capacity is 32 percent; the Navy 7 percent; and the Defense Logistic Agency 12 percent.

The impact: the Army, for example, has told Congress it now spends some $500 million a year in maintaining excess facilities that if closed, could release those funds for readiness or other activities. The Air Force has reduced combat fighter squadrons from 134 to 55 since the Gulf War. That’s a 60 percent reduction, yet the U.S. Air Force base structure has been reduced only 15 percent in that time.

Instituting a BRAC process [Base Realignment and Closure which leads to closing down excess military bases and facilities] could save $2 billion a year by 2019 if Congress would approve the process starting in fiscal 2017, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

This is the fifth year that the administration and the Pentagon have requested Congress approve $3.5 million to set up the so-called BRAC process. But in response, the legislators have removed that money, including from the bills now awaiting approval. That’s a clear reflection of Dempsey’s “not in my district” approach to suggestions for defense spending reductions because they would make the members’ constituents unhappy.

Dempsey, discussing the defense budget, said when he became Joint Chiefs Chairman, the Pentagon laid out what they thought was the “appropriate size of the force and the resources necessary to support it.” Also needed, he said, was “time, flexibility, and certainty.”

In the years since, the Pentagon has never had “certainty,” with Congress being unable to pass timely budgets and with, he said, “Sequestration hung over my head” and “over the heads of the service chiefs, who really are the ones that put the force together.”

Sequestration, automatic across-the-board budget cuts, was the product of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which set caps on discretionary spending, half of which goes to defense, for the next decade. It required those automatic cuts to go into effect if those caps during fiscal 2012, or in any succeeding year to 2021, were exceeded by congressionally voted appropriations as determined by the Office of Management and Budget.

Congress has twice given some relief from those 2011 defense spending caps. But recently, Republican leaders in Congress have defeated administration efforts to modify or replace the 2011 law, because they want to keep the caps in place for non-defense discretionary spending.

Republicans, however, have increased base defense spending beyond the caps by using a gimmick – appropriating it as money provided to the Overseas Contingencies Operations (OCO) account, designed to pay for warfighting abroad, which by law is not counted under the 2011 Act spending caps.

The Obama administration has threatened to veto the current defense spending bills, because the Republicans have again employed this gimmick to add $18 billion to the OCO account but designated it for use only for base budget spending.

The GOP gimmick is having a negative effect on defense spending, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released August 16. The GAO said the military services track their operations and management obligations by base budget and OCO appropriations, but they do not report such allocations separately in their budget reports sent to Congress. As a result, members and committees, such as Senate Appropriations, do not “have a clear understanding of OCO funding used to support DoD’s day-to-day programs and activities.”

In short, Congress set up a system that allows the transfer of funds that when used by the Pentagon, does not allow Congress to keep track of the money. We are not talking about penny ante figures. According to the GAO, some $10 billion was transferred between accounts in fiscal 2015.

Then there is the problem members of Congress create each year, having listened to testimony from Defense officials and then making their own decisions on key defense issues.

Take the determination of the size of military forces.

In the fiscal 2017 Defense Authorization bill now before Congress, the House-passed measure increased the Obama Pentagon’s proposed authorized size of the U.S. Army by 5,000; the Senate bill, as passed by its Armed Services Committee, reduced the proposed size of the U.S. Army by 15,000. That swing of 20,000 people is near the size of an Army division or three to four combat brigades.

What about the size of the Reserves and National Guard? The House raised the two up 15,200 to 833,200 overall. Meanwhile, the Senate committee dropped the figure, 9,800, to 808,202.

The House bill granted the military a 2.1percent pay raise next year; the Senate committee bill followed the Obama recommendation of a 1.65 percent raise. The House raise would cost $1.4 billion, the Obama/Senate committee just $338 million.

Dempsey, commenting on the presidential campaign talk, said, “What we need are conversations that have real depth to them. Talking about what’s going to happen in the first 60 or 90 days of a presidency just doesn’t get it done for me.”

He’s right when it comes to the presidency, but wrong when it comes to Congress.

That’s because members have been off the past seven weeks doing their own campaigning. They don’t return until September 6, leaving them only four weeks before fiscal 2017 begins. As of today, a Senate cloture vote, scheduled for September 6, is needed just to get the fiscal 2017 Defense Appropriations bill up for debate on the Senate floor.

How long it takes to pass it and then work out a conference with the House to iron out differences – and they are great – remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Congress leaves for five weeks beginning October 7, not returning until November 14 for a lame duck session, after which there will be another week off for Thanksgiving beginning November 19.

Because it’s doubtful the current Congress will pass next year’s defense budget before its session ends in mid December, what the new Congress does about defense spending will be important in the first 60 to 90 days of its new session in 2017.

Meanwhile, the budget certainty that Dempsey said the Pentagon needs will again be denied.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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