The Pentagon Is Taking a One-Year Break From Its Fiscal Fantasy

The latest Defense budget request gets real for 2015, and then returns to a fictional future in which Congress gives the military an extra $115 billion over five years.

President Obama designates Chuck Hagel as his nominee for Secretary of Defense at the White House January 7, 2013.  (Richard A. Bloom)
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Feb. 24, 2014, 12:59 p.m.

If you think the De­fense De­part­ment is fi­nally get­ting real­ist­ic about the deep budget cuts that simply won’t go away — think again.

The Pentagon is let­ting wish­ful think­ing gov­ern its budget re­quests in fu­ture years. Even though the Budget Con­trol Act is the law of the land. Even though Con­gress has proved, time and time again, that it does not plan to roll back all of the steep cuts des­pite pleas from the Pentagon call­ing for a budget­ary fix in the in­terest of na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

That’s the takeaway from De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, who on Monday offered a pre­view of his $496 bil­lion budget re­quest for the next fisc­al year. The budget pro­pos­al meets the spend­ing caps Con­gress im­posed for next year — but will in­clude an ex­tra $26 bil­lion wish list de­tail­ing pri­or­it­ies it wants on top of that re­quest. The Pentagon’s five-year plan over­shoots se­quest­ra­tion levels by a hefty $115 bil­lion.

Hagel is trans­par­ent about his reas­on­ing. “The reas­on we are re­quest­ing this in­crease over se­quest­ra­tion levels is be­cause the pres­id­ent and I would nev­er re­com­mend a budget that com­prom­ises our na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” he said. “Con­tin­ued se­quest­ra­tion cuts would com­prom­ise our na­tion­al se­cur­ity both for the short- and long-term.”

By re­fus­ing to plan for se­quest­ra­tion bey­ond next year, however, the Pentagon is miss­ing out on an im­port­ant polit­ic­al play to con­vince Con­gress to re­verse the cuts.

The Pentagon has so far man­aged to avoid the full force of se­quest­ra­tion — by us­ing leftover funds to cush­ion the blow and delay­ing con­tracts — but the stark con­sequences of se­quest­ra­tion got real this week. Hagel offered a taste of what life un­der se­quest­ra­tion would be like on Monday, when he pro­posed cut­ting the A-10 fleet, scal­ing back ex­pec­ted lit­tor­al com­bat ship pur­chases, and shrink­ing the Army — all tough choices with con­stitu­en­cies on the Hill. He warned there would be fur­ther drastic re­duc­tions if se­quest­ra­tion is not over­turned.

This is ex­actly what some law­makers, es­pe­cially Re­pub­lic­ans, were call­ing for — be­fore the fisc­al cliff.

When the White House in­struc­ted fed­er­al agen­cies in­clud­ing the Pentagon not to plan for the se­quester, as late as the end of 2012, Re­pub­lic­ans begged for a con­crete plan that would give the de­part­ment time to make safe re­duc­tions — and spur mem­bers to com­prom­ise once they fully un­der­stood the polit­ic­al pain they would face from a pro­jec­ted half-tril­lion-dol­lar cut on their dis­tricts. But Jef­frey Zi­ents, then act­ing dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget, in­sisted Con­gress should end the se­quester and re­duce the de­fi­cit re­spons­ibly, not “spend time mov­ing around the rocks at the bot­tom of the cliff, to make for a less pain­ful land­ing.”

Times are dif­fer­ent now, though. The Pentagon is fully aware these cuts are still in place, as evid­enced by the budget they will sub­mit next week, and it’s still let­ting its budget over­shoot in hopes the se­quester will be re­versed.

“I would like to plan on get­ting a big raise or my mort­gage rate go­ing down, but you can’t,” said Larry Korb, a former as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense un­der Pres­id­ent Re­agan and a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. “You’ve got to plan for what you have…. Why not just cut things, and then if you get more [money] you can add them?”

Fail­ing to ad­here to the law in the fu­ture not only makes it dif­fi­cult for the Pentagon to plan, it also means it could ul­ti­mately waste money by spend­ing money now on things it will cut later.

The Pentagon could have made some dif­fer­ent budget choices this year if it were an­ti­cip­at­ing se­quester in the fu­ture years. For in­stance, if it knew it could not af­ford to keep 11 car­ri­ers in the Navy, it could can­cel the re­fuel­ing for the USS George Wash­ing­ton now to save money, said Todd Har­ris­on of the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. It also might not need as many air­craft — and could slow down pro­duc­tion of the Navy’s car­ri­er ver­sion of the F-35. Or, if the Army knew it could not af­ford the 450,000 ser­vice mem­bers it re­ques­ted this year, it could start tak­ing steps to downs­ize act­ive-duty per­son­nel, ci­vil­ians, and con­tracts.

“Cuts in per­son­nel, wheth­er they’re mil­it­ary or ci­vil­ian, take time,” Har­ris­on said. “The soon­er you can start the pro­cess, the soon­er you can start sav­ing money and the longer you can save.”

Of course, the Pentagon would not want to be seen as pro­pos­ing the cuts be­cause it would be hard to spend the com­ing months ar­guing against them on Cap­it­ol Hill.

But the al­tern­at­ive is ris­ki­er, Har­ris­on said, since the de­part­ment could be caught flat-footed in terms of plan­ning — again. “I’d rather have a mes­saging prob­lem than a na­tion­al se­cur­ity prob­lem.”

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