Congress has 10 days to “stop the madness” — Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s description of the legislative process that he says has prevented the construction of a coherent defense budget.
“This is the fifth time in five years that Congress has been unable to do their basic business: pass a budget on time so that we can plan,” Work said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Fifth Annual Global Security Forum on Nov. 12.
“We’re in the third straight year of zero real growth in defense budgets,” he said, noting that former defense secretary Robert Gates had argued that the military needed about 2 percent to 3 percent in real growth to maintain a balanced program.
It’s two months into fiscal 2015, which began Oct. 1, and Pentagon officials “still have no certainty over the fiscal 2015 defense authorization,” he noted.
The government is running on a continuing appropriations resolution passed Sept. 19. That expires Dec. 11, so Congress has to act before that date or the government shuts down.
For the Pentagon, there is also the need to pass a fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill that includes language allowing continued training of moderate Syrian forces and Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State, plus providing supplemental funds of $1.6 billion to pay for it.
Work conceded that some of the Defense Department’s current fiscal problems were self-inflicted.
Pentagon officials bet in 2012 that sequestration wouldn’t happen. Who thought Congress would allow another $500 billion in future cuts over 10 years would take place on top of the $487 billion already required by the 2011 Budget Control Act?
“The department listened to the assurances of many in Washington and particularly those in Congress who said that sequestration would never occur. It was simply too destructive and too idiotic and too irresponsible,” Work said.
It hit in fiscal 2013, requiring the Pentagon to cut an additional $30 billion between March and October that year.
Here we are again.
Senior House and Senate members agree that sequestration — across-the-board cuts in all appropriations — is a stupid way to cut the budget, but it is the law. It will return in the fiscal 2016 Defense Department budget presented to Congress unless the law is changed.
“How can one really plan a program if they don’t really know for sure if that next $500 billion [sequester cut] is going to trigger?” Work said.
“You hear some people say, ‘it’s all going to change, we’re going to get rid of that,’ ” he said of sequestration.
“We’ve heard that all before. . . . Okay, stop the madness,” he said.
Although he was diplomatic enough not to call it part of the madness, Work also went after Congress’s repeated rejection of the Pentagon’s attempts to reduce defense spending.
Near the top of his list was three years of congressional refusal to allow studies that could lead to reducing excess Pentagon facilities.
“I hear all the time that we should be able to accommodate these cuts by trimming overhead. Got a lot of fat in the department? Jeez, just get yourself into a 21st-century business operation,” Work said with some sarcasm.
He pointed out that the Pentagon spends “about $55 billion annually to maintain, sustain and protect its bases.” The department, he said, has “about 24 percent excess capacity,” primarily because there were more facilities before recent reduction-in-force levels. “Now we have more excess capacity.
“Imagine the largest private-sector companies being forced to maintain 24 percent of excess overhead. They’d be out of business in a heartbeat. Their shareholders simply would not stand for it,” Work said, implying that neither should Congress.
He added that he understood “it’s a hard thing to do. Nobody wants to lose a base in their district. But maintaining that extra capacity is a big problem for us because it is wasteful spending, period. It is the worst type of bloat.”
The Pentagon’s answer is for Congress to authorize a new Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, which would involve setting up a bipartisan panel to study a list of bases for possible closure, holding public hearings, getting presidential approval for the panel’s list and an up-or-down vote by Congress on a package of closures.
Previous BRAC rounds have saved $12 billion annually — including $4 billion a year from the round in 2005, which members of Congress still complain about because of its initial costs.
Work estimated that a new BRAC round, to begin in 2017, could generate $2 billion a year in savings — but both the House and Senate have already rejected money to begin studying it.
The Pentagon also has run into congressional opposition in its attempt to reform the military pay and allowances, health-care, and retirement programs, which are the fastest-rising costs in the Pentagon budget. “Everyone knows that our rising personnel costs are simply unsustainable over time,” Work said.
“That’s another $11 billion to $39 billion” that could be saved, he said, adding: “The only thing that the committees have agreed upon is to freeze general officer pay,” which would save just $10 million a year.
Other Pentagon requests that would have saved billions by reducing future spending on A-10 attack aircraft, Navy cruisers and National Guard aircraft also were voted down by Congress.
“It is no exaggeration to say we are constantly accused of crying wolf,” Work said, but it could be that Congress may turn out to be as big a danger to Pentagon spending plans as that figurative wolf.
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