By Tila Neguse
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) early Thursday morning. This annual policy document authorizing Pentagon spending at $638.4 billion is a gross exaggeration of the current spending realities at the Pentagon set forth by the Budget Control Act. The $638.4 billion dollar figure well exceeds (by $52 billion) defense spending caps outlined by sequestration.
During the NDAA mark-up, over 80 amendments were offered, some of which showcased valiant yet ultimately defeated efforts to establish cost-saving policies that would facilitate real and much-needed savings at the Pentagon.
- Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC)
Rep. Adam Smith [WA], Ranking Member on HASC, offered an amendment to undo the restrictive language prohibiting the Pentagon from considering a BRAC in coming years. BRAC has of course always been a tough sell to Congress. After all, many members aren’t keen on closing bases in their districts. As well, the legacy of the most recent 2005 BRAC round still lingers. DoD’s own figures showed that the 2005 BRAC saved very little, not to mention won’t yield net savings until 2018. This amendment was attempting to create a pathway for a potential BRAC in the future and to strike the language in the NDAA that says the Pentagon may not propose, plan, or initiate another round of BRAC. Smith’s amendment failed, 44 to 14.
Rep. Jackie Speier [CA] offered an amendment that would seek personnel reforms. Due to a rise in benefits and pay, personnel costs have not dipped, even as the number of active duty personnel has gotten smaller. This issue was even addressed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in his first speech at the National Defense University in April, he remarked “We’re not going to be able to sustain the current personnel costs and retirement benefits…There will be no money in the budget for anything else.”
- The F-35
Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s [IL] amendment to freeze procurement on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Jet was essentially dead on arrival. The NDAA authorized continued funding of the F-35, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon system to date, with a price tag of $1.5 trillion over its lifespan. Since its inception in 2001, the estimated total cost per plane has risen from $81.7 million to $162.5 million. The F-35 is plagued with inefficiencies. With parts of the F-35 produced in almost every state in the U.S., stopping procurement on this expensive weapons system is just as tough a sell to Congress as BRAC. The amendment failed, 51-10.
With a drawdown following the wars and sequestration forcing a budget climate of austerity, Congress should be planning for smart reductions, not rejecting proposals for cost saving options like these showcased in the mark-up of the NDAA. Acquisition funding is expected to and should slow, including new money for procurement. With over a third of the Pentagon’s budget going to acquisition of weapons systems, many of which are strategically ineffective as well as costly like the F-35, Congress should be setting policies in place that reflect current spending realities.
More telling than the amendments that failed on the NDAA is that no amendment was even offered on the Global Hawk Block 30 drone. Air Force officials do not want more of these drones, maintaining that U-2 planes are better equipped to do its job. However, Congress refuses to let this program retire. The Air Force has even claimed there would be savings of $2.5 billion over 4 years if the program were cancelled.
Ignoring sequestration and the seemingly inevitable reductions at the Pentagon isn’t just an oversight of HASC, but seems to be a commonality amongst lawmakers across the spectrum. Although through different legislative means, the FY14 Senate-passed budget, the House-passed budget, and the President’s budget all ignore or undo sequestration for defense.
The mark-up of the FY2014 NDAA offered insight into the illogic Congress is operating under regarding Pentagon spending. BCA caps already reduce Pentagon spending by almost $500 billion dollars over 10 years, and currently enacted sequestration adds another $500 billion to that number. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense will move this month with their appropriations bill that, in similar fashion, ignores sequestration.
Analysts from across the political spectrum have released reports detailing a range of concrete options for finding savings in the Pentagon budget. The Pentagon can cut an additional $500 billion to $1 trillion over the next decade without harming U.S. security, a reality Congress needs to face in its policy making decisions.
Next Wednesday, the NDAA will go to the House floor. We will be watching to see if more amendments are offered to rein in Pentagon spending.