By Gordon Adams
As I have been writing for a year, the Pentagon has the greatest flexibility of any agency in the executive branch to deal with sequestration. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel proved it on Tuesday, August 7, announcing that civil service furloughs at the Pentagon, which started at 22 days, then fell to 11, were falling even further, to six days in this fiscal year.
This comes on top of putting Air Force air wings back in the air after grounding them because the sequester took the operating funds, and deploying the carrier Harry S. Truman into the Persian Gulf after all, having said the Navy would have to keep it in port — again, because there was simply no money.
This kind of recovery from a $37 billion sequester suggests there has been some hyperbole over the past eight months. I wonder if former Secretary Panetta is watching.
I have never had any doubt that DOD could handle sequestration, not even for a second. The Pentagon is blessed when it comes to managing a decline in funding. It has a huge budget, over $600 billion a year. The accounts that are most affected by the sequester — operations and maintenance — have the greatest flexibility to move money around (they call it “fungibility”).
They have the capacity to reprogram funds internally, below certain thresholds and within certain accounts, without notifying Congress, and authority on top of that to reprogram (having notified Congress). They got a full appropriations bill this year, with more funds ($11 billion more than they had for operations under a continuing resolution) and more flexibility in March — other agencies were not so lucky. And they had the war in Afghanistan, from which we are withdrawing, leaving previously appropriated operations money on the table.
There is no question that everyone would prefer a drawdown at DOD that had even more flexibility than the Pentagon’s lucky bag of magic can provide. Fitting force structure planning, weapons investment plans, and readiness together, driven by strategic requirements, is preferable to “automatic” cuts. (Clearly, though, these automatic cuts are not nearly so blunt or deadly as has been made out.) But the additional flexibility that the Pentagon would like won’t come without a broader budget deal between the White House and the Congress — don’t hold your breath. In his briefing on the Strategic Choices and Management Review last week, Hagel complained that the cuts went so deep that “flexibility” wasn’t even the issue.
Way back when, Secretary Panetta and the uniformed military were crying the loudest about the pain the sequester would induce, way before the air traffic controllers or the Head Start instructors. But seriously, you could not have it better than the Pentagon has. Full credit to Hagel for acting on the flexibility he has. He’ll get even more credit if the hyperbole ends and the Pentagon steps up to the reality of a drawdown and plans accordingly. They’ve got room to maneuver.