Congressional action on the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year (FY)2015 started last week when the House Armed Services Committee began crafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In the portion dealing with shipbuilding issues, we found the following directive bill language:
“Limitation on Expenditure of Funds Until Commencement of Planning of Refueling and Complex Overhaul of the U.S.S. GEORGE WASHINGTON.
“Not more than 50 percent of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available under section 301 of the Act for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for fiscal year 2015 may be obligated or expended until the Secretary of Defense obligates funds to commence the planning and long lead time material procurement associated with the refueling and complex overhaul of the U.S. S. George Washington (CVN-73).”
This is what is known as a “fencing” amendment. Congress “fences off” money somewhere in the budget until some other, completely unrelated, action occurs. In this case, the Committee is taking it from the top – half the money for running the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the next fiscal year is fenced off until steps are taken to begin the refueling required to maintain the carrier USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (“the GW”.) The GW is a nuclear powered aircraft carrier (as they all are now.) This carrier entered into service in 1990 with an expected service life of roughly 50 years. And half way through that service life the Navy needs to refuel the nuclear reactor as well as take a series of maintenance and repair actions, called a “complex overhaul” to update the warfighting capability of the ship.
This became a debate this year because the Navy’s budget submission deferred the beginning of the refueling process by one year, until FY16. Shipbuilding advocates, fearing an assault on their touchstone of an 11 carrier fleet, want to force the Navy to begin the process in FY15. The subcommittee press release phrased it this way:
“Supports the nuclear refueling of CVN 73- a ship with 25 years of service life left-, thus preserving a fleet of 11 carriers rather than 10;”
In fact, the Committee devotes close to $800 million to this effort, between funding the work on a new naval reactor for the GW as well as the first tranche of money for the overhaul. And because of the caps in the Budget Control Act, money elsewhere must be reduced to accommodate this Congressional requirement.
But the strong arm tactics by the Congress of threatening to cut funding for the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the kind of school yard bully approach that makes people wonder why official Washington can’t just do its job without the histrionics. We wonder too.