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."