The Defense Department gets special budgetary treatment, and the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 appropriations bill in the House’s Continuing Resolution that passed Wednesday proves the point.
It’s not just because Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs were the only ones that got the fiscal 2013 money while the rest of government mainly continued to receive funds at the fiscal 2012 level. That can be justified mainly because national security is involved, so supporting our troops and veterans here at home is universally accepted.
But there are other reasons why no other department or agency can get away with having billions of appropriated but unused funds that can be returned to the Treasury or shifted to other projects. And no other department can have Congress annually take some of those billions — using reasons such as “unjustified program growth,” “revised cost estimate,” “contract delay,” “ahead of need” or just “excess funding” — and not have a few heads roll.
And probably the most obvious: No other government entity provides the political benefits to lawmakers who vote those billions for the Defense Department.
So when legislators take the House floor and complain, as they did Wednesday, that Defense needs dispensation because it’s taken a “disproportionate share of budget cuts,” remember there’s some self-interest involved.
Excesses in the Defense Department and Military Construction fiscal 2013 funding can be found in the 335 pages of the House-Senate Conferees’ explanation of the Continuing Resolution that was delivered Tuesday by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
One of the biggest shifts was to add nearly $11 billion to the operations and maintenance (O&M) account, in part because of concerns about readiness. At Tuesday’s House Rules Committee hearing, Rogers was asked where the money was found. About $5 billion came from saving on spare parts and $4 billion from excess funds for foreign forces, he said.
I noticed among the O&M items the bill reduced as “unjustified” was $50 million for travel associated with Air Force travel. What other agency could even seek $50 million for travel?
And how about finding more efficiency in moving people from one military assignment to another. It’s called permanent change of station. The conferees cut that by $147 million and recommended the military find “efficiencies.”
The Navy Reserve apparently had a “shortfall,” according to the conferees and needed another C-40A — a version of the Boeing 737 that can be used for cargo or personnel. Its cost: $79 million. But the Navy Reserve provides “100 percent of the Navy’s worldwide in-theater medium and heavy airlift,” according to the service.
And Congress almost doubled to $200 million funds to develop prompt global-strike capability — the seeking of an advanced hypersonic weapon to deliver a conventional weapon anywhere in the world within an hour.
There’s also repairs for the Navy’s 22-year-old USS Miami, the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine that was in a fire. The first repair estimate was $450 million. This year the Navy said it needed $150 million more, which it got.
On Tuesday at the House Appropriations Military Construction Subcommittee, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno — talking about the sequester — said the Army would have to delay some “top construction priorities.” Renovating cadet barracks and building new ones at West Point were among them.
In a solicitation notice, the Corps of Engineers said the project provided barracks for 650 cadets. The primary facility would include, among other things, two-person rooms, plus a battalion support area; latrines and showers; laundry, trash/ recycling, storage, day and study rooms; building information systems; and offices for tactical officers, tactical noncommissioned officers and duty orderlies.
Cost for “design, construction of base and all optional items,” the Corps said, was $170 million. To pay for barracks at West Point the Army asked for $192 million in fiscal 2013. No one appeared to balk. The conferees only agreed to provide “incremental” funds — $86 million, or half for a project engineers said would take nearly four years to complete once the design contract is awarded.
Then there’s military health care: $273 million added to cover what would have been modest increased fees for Tricare. The White House had proposed working retirees pay the bump, but Congress blocked that.
Congress also added to its peer-reviewed military research. The fiscal 2013 bill includes $623 million, though $135 million is for military-related studies on traumatic brain injury and psychological health research. But there’s also $12 million for Alzheimer’s and $6 million for autism. It’s as if the National Institutes of Health and others are not working on these issues.
Maybe conferees have started seeing problems. They added $50 million under a general category of “Peer-reviewed medical research,” but at least they directed the defense secretary and military service surgeons general “to select medical research projects of clear scientific merit and direct relevance to military health.”
That’s not much, but it’s progress.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.