Congress Roasts Pentagon Over Spending Cuts It Passed Into Law

The Defense Department knew its budget request would be a tough sell, but lawmakers aren’t buying it.

<p>The Air Force's A-10 fleet is being retired under the fiscal year 2015 budget request.</p>
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
March 5, 2014, 11 a.m.

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.”

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