By Ernesto Londoño
Lawmakers who oversee defense policy outlined a vision last week for the first post-war Pentagon budget that is sharply at odds with the blueprint the Obama administration proposed to restructure a military force bloated after 13 years of conflict.
In markups of next year’s defense budget, members of the House and Senate armed services committees rejected many of the administration’s proposed cost-saving measures, including shuttering obsolete facilities, cutting an attack aircraft fleet and reining in compensation.
As they have in years past, lawmakers preserved funding for myriad programs and platforms that bring jobs and money to their constituents, including several the Pentagon has come to see as expendable in an era of leaner budgets. The markups, the first key battle of a months-long process that is expected to drag out until the end of the year, drew sharp responses from the Pentagon and the White House.
Officials at the Pentagon had anticipated that several of their money-saving proposals would be politically untenable, but they expressed disappointment after the House bill was unveiled, and warned that members of Congress were gambling with the readiness of the force.
“They want to continue to cut the budget, which they have done, but also not give us the flexibility to make the tough choices and prioritize,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday in an interview with PBS. “We’re going to be about the narrow, parochial interests of members of Congress only, and not about the national security of this country.”
The White House issued a detailed statement on Monday, saying it had “serious concerns” about the House bill, which will be reconciled with the Senate version in the months ahead. A final draft will be presented to the White House.
“As we face this time of uncertainty in both the fiscal and security environments, we must ensure that scarce resources are directed to the highest priorities that our military requires to keep the nation safe and prepare for future threats,” said the statement, which included a veto threat.
The Obama administration nominated Hagel to run the Pentagon last year hoping that his experience as a former Republican senator from Nebraska would make him an effective salesman for the White House’s approach to cost cutting.
“Secretary Hagel was nominated to be the face of these tough decisions, to have a Republican combat veteran running the Defense Department during an era of downturn,” said Ethan R. Rosenkranz, a national security policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight.
But the administration’s efforts to persuade lawmakers that the first post-war budget was the right time to make painful choices appear to have largely failed.
“For four years in a row, the Pentagon has sent over these proposals and they’ve been rejected,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “The way they send them over is not serious because it’s clear we’ll reject them again.”
The Pentagon’s bid to get Congress to authorize a new round of base closures that officials say would save billions of dollars was nixed by the Senate and House, despite an effort by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the committee, who argued that the move would have been fiscally sound.
Thornberry said lawmakers sought to prevent base closures as a means to “preserve options” in a dangerous world.
“I think we need to have a bigger discussion about how big a military we need and what sort of role we play in the world,” he said. “Just speaking for myself, I’m not ready to give up and [have] a smaller military at this point.”
Rosenkranz said lawmakers are more motivated by the “entrenched interests” that have been woven into the defense budget for decades.
“I am continuously shocked by the inability of the House or the Senate to make these tough decisions,” he said. “The Pentagon for three years has put forth very modest cost-saving proposals. Again and again, Congress says no.”
The House- and Senate-proposed budgets, totalling $521 billion and $514 billion respectively, exceeded the $496 billion cap imposed last year as a temporary alternative to the rigid deficit reduction mechanism known as sequestration because they included items beyond the Pentagon budget.
Both markups protected the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a fleet of attack planes the Air Force hoped to retire. Lawmakers also blocked the bulk of compensation and benefits rollbacks the White House favors in a bid to save $31 billion by 2019.
The House and Senate budgets differ on one crucial point. The House bill bars the administration from transferring prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay to the United States, while the Senate version gives the administration some of the leeway it has sought to shut down the detention center and try terror suspects on American soil.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said Friday that Hagel hopes members of Congress in coming months come to “understand the wisdom behind these decisions” and make the “tough choices” the Defense Department has identified as the most sensible.
Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert who served in the Clinton White House, said the Pentagon is unlikely to get much traction.
“The administration does not have the upper hand,” he said. “Congress has the upper hand.”