House Republicans rolled out their alternative budget Tuesday with a key detail missing: what specific programs — if any — would be cut.
The budget, spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, sets discretionary national defense spending at $521 billion, which includes non-Pentagon activities related to homeland security and the Energy Department.
But Ryan's budget largely bypasses the central question in Congress's defense budget battle: which programs — and member pet projects — get included, and which get left behind in an era of fiscal austerity.
Instead, his national defense budget rolls back some of the controversial provisions in the Pentagon's budget, including reductions in health care coverage and a one-year pay freeze for top brass.
"Given the explosive growth in compensation costs, the possibilities for reform must be examined," the Ryan budget notes, pointing to an ongoing military commission — whose report won't be done until February 2015 — as the vehicle to do it.
But Ryann who defended a cut to military retirement included in his budget agreement with Sen. Patty Murray, isn't the only one hesitant to start another fight with veterans' groups. Senators are hoping to kick the can on compensation changes, even though Robert Hale, the Defense Department's comptroller, warned it would cost an additional tens of billions of dollars over the next five years.
Ryan's budget also "contemplates" not reducing troop levels in the Army as far as the president's budget and maintaining an 11th Navy carrier.
But with Ryan's total national defense spending, which includes non-Pentagon items, still approximately $20 billion below the $542 billion that Pentagon officials expected to request for fiscal 2015, something has to give.
When it comes to defense cuts, Ryan returns to general suggestions: that the Pentagon needs to get its books in order so it can be audited, requires a reboot of how it purchases programs and hardware (something the Senate and Pentagon are working on), and should make further cuts to its civilian workforce.
The administration's 2015 budget request keeps the Pentagon's budget request at $496 billion by putting programs and funding long cherished by members on the line, including Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte's push to keep the Air Force's A-10.
But Ryan, like President Obama, is hoping to break the sequester-level budget caps after fiscal 2015, even though Armed Services Committee members have suggested — and at times said — that the sequester is likely here to stay.
And it's not the first time the Wisconsin Republican has skimped on certain details. Democratic criticism of the budget is practically an annual tradition in the House. Democrats note that Ryan says his plan would rein in overall spending without specifying how, and that his proposal offsets boosts in Pentagon spending by making deep cuts in social programs.