Members of Congress can finally feel the political pain the hundreds of billions of defense budget cuts they signed into law will bring to their districts. And they want to escape it.
Lawmakers, decrying the controversial cuts in the Pentagon's budget next year, want the department to fund their political priorities. Here's the problem: There's only a limited pot of money to go around.
Let the defense budget Hunger Games begin. To fund their pet projects, lawmakers will have to fight with the Pentagon and each other.
(Related: A Tale of Two Wish Lists)
The Pentagon, for its part, has detailed $26 billion worth of programs it wants funded next year—on top of its $496 billion budget request, which meets the budget caps Congress imposed. But this list omits some of lawmakers' most cherished programs. There's zero chance Congress will accept the Pentagon's so-called Opportunity, Growth and Security initiative as written—even if lawmakers change the law to allow the Pentagon the extra cash it wants.
"The president's budget is a political document, and I don't see [the wish list] going anywhere," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican.
It's not just the Pentagon's wish list at stake. Lawmakers may even try to find money for their own priorities by gouging programs the Pentagon considers the most crucial and that it wants funded in its core, base budget.
Everything will be a tradeoff in this era of fiscal pressure. "If they force us, as they have every year, to keep things we don't want to keep," acting deputy Defense secretary Christine Fox has said of Congress, "...there's not slop here. We have to take it out somewhere else."
So what's on the wish lists of members of Congress?
For starters, Ayotte and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia 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 certainly going to do obviously everything I can to reverse these cuts," Ayotte said. "This has been a proven platform that saves lives."
Of course, the senators certainly have their personal reasons to save the aircraft—and not just because it's a favorite among soldiers thanks to its ability to fly low and take out enemy targets even when they're close to U.S. troops on the ground. Ayotte's husband is a former A-10 pilot, and dozens of the A-10 planes are based in Georgia and Arizona. But cutting the plane would save the Pentagon $3.7 billion over five years—plus another $500 million if a wing-replacement program is also nixed. The Air Force says that keeping it could cost even more.
So if Ayotte and the A-10 advocates want to keep the plane, they must find a way to make up the savings—read: cut another program in its place. The Air Force, for its part, found cutting the A-10 was the least risky option in terms of national security. To reach that same level of savings in its budget, the Air Force would have had to cut the entire B-1 bomber fleet or about 350 F-16s.
Keeping the A-10 won't just be a battle with the Pentagon, however. Virtually every program has a constituency on Capitol Hill, so successfully hauling another program onto the chopping block won't necessarily be easy. The F-16 is a good example. The Pentagon says it cannot carry out its missions if it slashes hundreds of F-16s, and the fleet is scattered across many states—and congressional districts.
The Pentagon also wants another round of base closures, to shed facilities it no longer needs and cannot afford. Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale expects this to cost around $6 billion at first, but it would save $2 billion each year in perpetuity—which would add up to significant savings over time that lawmakers would have to make up if they want to keep their bases.
That's not stopping them from trying. Lawmakers with military bases or installations in their districts that could potentially be on the chopping block are already lining up against the proposed closures, including Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Ayotte of New Hampshire and Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Connecticut Democrats.
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. "That can't be done," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon. "Or if that could be done, it shouldn't be done." But those reductions would result in a net savings, according to budget documents, of at least $11.9 billion over five years—a whole lot of money the lawmakers would need to find another way to pay for.
The Pentagon is also scaling back the Littoral Combat Ship program, a next-generation surface ship historically controversial for its delays and cost overruns, down to 32 ships from its planned purchase of 52. The Pentagon has commissioned a task force to determine whether it should build any more, modify the ship's design, or determine what other small surface combatant ship may be better.
But members of Congress in both parties are already fighting against cutting the orders, including Republican Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, insisted, "We cannot allow the livelihoods of thousands of South Alabama families and the future of the United States Navy to hang in the balance over an arbitrary decision from the administration." The ship is manufactured in part by Austal USA's Port of Mobile facility, which employs 4,000 residents of South Alabama. And Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, whose district also helps build the ship, said, "Especially in lean budgetary times, our military needs to have this cost-effective vessel as part of its arsenal."
There's a litany of other priorities on Capitol Hill. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, is railing against the Obama administration's planned reductions in the number of F-35 fighter jets it wants to buy next year, saying it would "delay the program and drive up costs." The Air Force plans to cut nearly 500 aircraft in 25 states—including the C-130 military-transport aircraft stationed at Pope Airfield in North Carolina. Of course, Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from that state, "strongly" disagrees with the decision.
As members of Congress craft—and debate—the defense authorization and appropriations bills in the coming weeks and months, lawmakers may want to remember Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's sobering words about the tough choices facing the department: "I wish we could keep every platform we have everywhere, but we can't."
Some things will have to go. The question is, what will be left standing in the end—and who on Capitol Hill will benefit or suffer the consequences?
This article appears in the March 21, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.