By: Philip Ewing and Jeremy Herb and Austin Wright
The message of congressional defense advocates used to boil down to a simple question: “Where’s mine?”
Now, the shorthand pitch has become an equally simple declaration: “Not it.”
The Defense Department wants to close a base? Not the one in my district. The Air Force wants to decommission a squadron? Not my guys. The Navy wants to get rid of some warships? Not ones built by the folks who vote for me.
It’s a new twist on an old story. Bone-deep partisan divisions over taxes and spending mean Congress cannot act collectively to reverse the trend of a flat or falling defense budget. That means lawmakers can’t increase the size of the pie and serve each other a bigger slice, the way they did for many years after 2001. Instead, unable to stop the shrinking, each member wants somebody else to be the one who gets less.
“It used to be in the past when you do this, it was fairly easy,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. “You just move the top line and then you fit everything in.”
“Here,” he explained, “what we’re doing is saying, ‘The top line is fixed,’ and there’s going to be some very spirited discussion about how do we make those priority discussions. And I don’t expect everybody’s going to leave satisfied.”
New Jersey and California members want Congress to require the Air Force to buy a minimum of 22 new KC-46A Pegasus tankers before it can begin divesting its existing KC-10 Extenders. North Carolina members say the Air Force cannot deactivate the 440th Airlift Wing, based at Fort Bragg. Arizona and Georgia members say the Air Force must keep the fleet of A-10 Warthog attack jets it wants to retire.
The list goes on: Virginia members — including Wittman — say the Navy must proceed with the refueling of an aircraft carrier it says it might not be able to afford. Alaska’s delegation says the Army must maintain its two brigade combat teams in the state, having already fought off an earlier Air Force proposal to relocate a squadron of F-16 fighters.
Senior members aren’t pleased.
“This is not the way that intelligent, responsible people should be acting. I guess it’s no surprise, but it is a disappointment,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a longtime defense appropriator who is leaving the House at the end of this term.
“We criticize CEOs for making decisions that are based solely upon improving their performance for the next quarter at the expense of long-term economic viability,” he told POLITICO. “Here, we do the same damn thing.”
Republican defense supporters argue there’s a simple way out of the crunch — spend more money. House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R- Texas) told reporters that U.S. defense spending should be commensurate with the level of danger in the world. Which, he and others argue, is high.
“It’s hard to make it worse,” said Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who also plans to leave the House when this term is over. He argued the solution was to “put more money in.”
Democrats also say the answer is simple: Support President Barack Obama’s budget proposal, which would raise some taxes and make some cuts, but also do away with sequestration and give the Pentagon more control over its own fate.
The parties have not budged from these basic positions for years.
Some lawmakers say Congress is being shortsighted by trying to protect so many things. Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, blasted his colleagues for preferring quick fixes and ignoring the long-term implications for the defense budget.
“The worst thing we can do is basically what we’re doing, to protect program after program after program and reject those cuts,” said Smith, of Washington state. “We are still stuck in the notion — if you look at how we’re trying to deal with 2015 authorization and appropriations bills — of trying to move deck chairs around.”
Defense officials lament that Congress’ unwillingness to go along with base closures, proposed program cuts and reforms to personnel costs means the Pentagon is effectively throwing money away at a time when it can least afford to. They acknowledge, however, the Defense Department isn’t blameless either.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she regrets both Congress and the Pentagon’s single-minded focus on each year’s budget as a short-term, one-year game — but conceded it isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“One of my lessons learned in life was to be optimistic, but I will now turn pessimistic — I wish I could say that we’d ever be able to convince the Congress to do a two-year budget cycle. But that’s been talked about for years, so I really don’t see that on our horizon,” James said.
The services’ proposals aren’t just questions of dollars and cents, Pentagon officials say, and the A-10 issue is a good example. Last year, Congress barred the Air Force from taking any action to retire the attack jets, and the stage appears to be set for a repeat of that prohibition. But Air Force officials say mothballing the aircraft is the best of their bad options to free up about $4.2 billion, which would help restore flying hours for a service deeply frustrated by having to idle its aircraft during sequestration last year.
James said not retiring the A-10s means the Air Force can’t go ahead with plans for replacements and changes in the units that operate them, creating a “domino effect” that would cause disruptions across the force. Fighting short-term battles also uses time and energy that could be better applied to tackling the military’s bigger questions, she said.
“We as leaders, the people within the Air Force, and ditto the Army, Navy and so forth, we have to religiously protect our thinking time, and the way we utilize our time that we are not so consumed exclusively by what’s going on next year … [so] that we reserve enough of our own brainpower and our own time to devote to thinking about the years down the pike. So much of the story of tomorrow does relate 10, 20 years down the pike, and we have to make those choices and investments for 10, 20 years down the pike.”
Moran, who spent his career representing a Northern Virginia district rich with defense contractors as well as the Pentagon, said he would end it with no prescription for how to persuade Congress to change its ways.
“I don’t know what to do,” he laughed. “That’s why I’m leaving.”