The Pentagon's top officials arrived on Capitol Hill armed with a series of controversial budget-cutting proposals they knew would be a tough sell. But it's already clear that lawmakers aren't buying them.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee objected to an array of budget reductions, big and small, proposed in the Pentagon's $496 billion budget blueprint for next year released Tuesday.
On the witness stand a day later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey defended their choices in the shrinking defense budget—but convincing lawmakers to agree may be an impossible ask.
In a microcosm of Washington's current budget woes, Congress has committed to cutting the Defense Department budget, but it is fiercely resistant to cutting anything specific in that budget.
Lawmakers appeared reluctant to agree, even, that the budget caps they helped impose in the Budget Control Act of 2011—which set up a half-trillion-dollar sequester cut—was a reason that defense spending is shrinking.
The committee's top Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, asked the officials if they feel constrained by the amount of funding they have to work with, after a brief speech about how entitlement spending is going up as defense spending is going down under the Obama administration. "Let's start with the fact that we are confined by the budget caps," Hagel shot back. "That's the reality. It's the budget cap that the Congress agreed to that confines me."
The Pentagon has managed to avoid the full force of sequestration so far, through changes in the law or funneling funds leftover from previous years to blunt its impact. This year, lawmakers are finally able to see how the big-picture cuts to the defense budget affect their personal political priorities. And they don't like it one bit.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Saxby Chambliss are charging ahead in their defense of the A-10 aircraft, which the Pentagon wants to retire to make room in its budget for other aircraft, such as the F-35 fighter jet. "I'm probably one of the few people in the room that's actually had an A-10 come to my rescue," Dempsey said. "So you don't have to convince me that it's been an extraordinarily valuable tool on the battlefield. What you're seeing play out here is some of the very difficult budget decisions we've got to make."
Ayotte did not give up so easily. "Some of the biggest advocates for the platform have been, you know, your fellow soldiers who have had similar experiences with the A-10. Isn't that right?" the New Hampshire Republican asked.
"Absolutely," Dempsey replied. "What's different now is, we had some slack in our budget over the last 10 years. There's no more slack in it."
The Pentagon wants another round of base closures, which is not going to be popular. But Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was quick to bring up the military facilities in her state before fretting about how the Pentagon would avoid the costs it incurred closing bases in 2005.
Hagel said the most recent round of closures is now saving the U.S. money—to the tune of $12 billion a year. "We cannot continue to afford to carry infrastructure that we don't need," Hagel said. "I wish we could keep every platform we have everywhere, but we can't." His comptroller, Robert Hale, added that the proposed closures would likely cost about $6 billion, but save $2 billion a year in the future.
Lawmakers quite openly raised their own parochial objections. The Pentagon in its budget wants to retire the 440th Air Wing fleet of C-130 military transport aircrafts. "With the 440th Airlift Wing inactivated, there would be no Air Force planes stationed at Pope Airfield," said Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat. "I strongly disagree with this decision."
Several lawmakers voiced their concerns with politically sensitive adjustments to military compensation and benefits in the budget request, including increased out-of-pocket costs for military housing and higher fees for Tricare, the military health care system.
Pentagon leaders said they felt comfortable making these changes to save money for training and equipment, as they wait for a commission to make recommendations next year about how to overhaul the military pay-and-benefits system. "We knew enough about where we thought we were going to have to eventually go … that we felt we could make the decision," Hagel said.
Still, it was not an easy choice. "It pains me to hear the characterization of balancing the budget on the backs of our servicemen and women," Dempsey said. "This weighs heavily on all of us."
This article appears in the March 6, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.