Four Ways the Pentagon Is About to Infuriate Congress

Budgets require tough choices, and the Pentagon is proposing cuts to areas that lawmakers hold near and dear.

U.S. Marines walk on top of their Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) while on patrol near the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 16, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
March 4, 2014, 10:59 a.m.

White House budgets are part wish list and part polit­ic­al sales pitch, and when the White House sent Con­gress its $496 bil­lion mil­it­ary budget Tues­day, it set up some hard sales.

Work­ing on a tight budget, the Pentagon is pro­pos­ing cuts to areas that law­makers hold dear. And al­though top Pentagon of­fi­cials ap­peared across Wash­ing­ton last week on a charm of­fens­ive, they’ll need noth­ing short of sales ma­gic as they try to get Con­gress to go along with a hand­ful of sure-to-be-con­tro­ver­sial changes.

Here are some of the high­lights:

Shrink­ing the Army. The Pentagon wants to re­duce the ser­vice’s act­ive force to between 440,000 to 450,000 sol­diers — mak­ing it the smal­lest force since be­fore World War II, but also roughly con­sist­ent with the min­im­um num­ber that top Army of­fi­cials say is needed.

Re­pub­lic­ans, however, have cri­ti­cized the re­quest for ig­nor­ing, what they view, as an in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous world. Tak­ing an early swing at the cuts, Sens. John Mc­Cain and Lind­sey Gra­ham said in a joint state­ment that “now is not the time to em­brace a de­fense pos­ture “¦ which left us un­pre­pared to face gath­er­ing glob­al threats.”

Base clos­ures. De­fense of­fi­cials are already hear­ing that a re­quest for a round of base clos­ures and re­align­ment in 2017 is dead on ar­rival at Con­gress’s door­step.

Base changes — which pro­voke bi­par­tis­an dis­ap­prov­al — face two prob­lems. First, mem­bers are loath to be seen cut­ting jobs in their home state. And while clos­ing bases saves money in the long term, a fisc­al-con­scious Con­gress would have to ap­prove spend­ing $1.6 bil­lion through fisc­al 2019.

Per­son­nel changes. Con­gress shot down a re­cent at­tempt to re­duce some mil­it­ary pen­sions, but the Pentagon is tak­ing an­oth­er swing at changes to mil­it­ary per­son­nel costs.

The de­part­ment wants to scale back its hous­ing al­low­ance to cov­er 95 per­cent of es­tim­ated rent­al costs; freeze top brass’ pay for a year; and in­crease “mod­estly” the health care co-pays and de­duct­ibles for re­tir­ees and act­ive-duty fam­ily mem­bers.

Al­though Tues­day’s budget re­quest stresses that the Pentagon covered a smal­ler per­cent in the ‘90s, it moves away from a dec­ade-plus in which per­son­nel spend­ing was largely con­sidered im­mune to budget cuts.

Re­tir­ing the A-10. The Air Force’s A-10 air­craft, of­ten used to sup­port troops on the ground, is set to be re­tired, cre­at­ing a pre­dict­able fight with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire lead­ing the way.

The Pentagon is hop­ing to use the re­tire­ment to save $3.5 bil­lion, but such a plan has been blocked be­fore. As part of an an­nu­al de­fense bill passed in Decem­ber, the re­tire­ment, pre­par­a­tion to re­tire, or stor­age of A-10s — ex­cept those marked for re­tire­ment in April 2013 — was for­bid­den dur­ing the 2014 fisc­al year.

But the Pentagon could have one ad­vant­age. Des­pite some early back­lash, if Con­gress in­tends to stick by its base spend­ing cap — as sug­ges­ted by House Armed Ser­vices rank­ing mem­ber Adam Smith — mem­bers will even­tu­ally have to swal­low tough cuts. The ever-im­port­ant ques­tions of where, and how, re­mains to be seen.

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