Remember the Broadway musical “South Pacific?” One of its many memorable songs describes that moment when, across a crowded room, you recognize your true love. The refrain: “Once you have found her, never let her go…” strikes us as a fitting analogy for Congress’ inability to let go of parochial interests and just get on with legislating.
Wednesday night was evidently just such an enchanted evening during the House Armed Services Committee’s consideration of the Pentagon authorization bill for fiscal year (FY)2015. The committee worked on the bill from mid-morning Wednesday until just after midnight on Thursday. But, as so often happens late at night, common sense flew out the window.
Consider the fate of several Pentagon attempts to save some money:
- Round of base closures (BRAC) in 2017 – rejected by Chairman McKeon in his draft of the legislation, Rep. Adam Smith drafted an amendment to authorize a BRAC round in 2017. Mr. Smith plans to offer this amendment on the House floor and while we strongly support it, its chances of passage in the House are close to zero.
- Commissary subsidy reduction – A plan to, over three years, reduce by $1 billion the annual direct subsidy provided to military commissaries, which now amounts to $1.4 billion. Again, these reductions were proposed by the Pentagon and rejected by Chairman McKeon. The Committee did write language requiring the Department of Defense to “consult with outside experts in retail grocery sales to find efficiencies in the commissary system.” And an amendment was agreed to in committee requiring commissaries to continue selling tobacco products. Sigh. We believe it is time to close all commissaries in the United States.
- Deactivation of Navy ships – The Navy has, for several years, attempted to deactivate several of its TICONDEROGA class cruisers and Dock Landing Ships. Retiring them, rather than doing further modernizations to these ships from the 1980s, would save the Navy money. This might seem like a smart plan to those of us who believe the Pentagon should get used to making do with less money. But Members of Congress, particularly those representing the shipbuilders who vie for contracts to modernize ships, don’t see it that way. An amendment by Rep. Smith to authorize the Navy to implement its plan was rejected. Instead, an amendment to prohibit the Navy from using any funds made available for the Department of Defense for FY15 to “retire, prepare to retire, inactivate, or place in storage a cruiser or dock landing ship” was adopted.
- Delay of aircraft carrier refueling – Again, the Navy ran up against the interests of Members representing the shipbuilders. In this case the Pentagon’s budget request would delay the start of the refueling and complex overhaul of the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON. Again, the Navy was making decisions to live within the budget constraints, such as they are, placed on Pentagon spending. Again, not so fast Navy. From the Committee press release, “…Chairman McKeon’s proposal funds important platforms, preserves the industrial base, restores readiness, and invests in the future. This includes supporting the refueling of the USS George Washington…” (Emphasis in the original.) Yep, it definitely preserves the industrial base to add $796.2 million for this program the Navy wants to delay for a single year.
- Retirement of the A-10 – In this case the Air Force, like the Navy, is attempting to make the hard decisions that will allow it to live in a fiscal reality where Pentagon budgets are static or declining. A decision to retire the venerable A-10 “Thunderbolt” was not taken lightly by the Air Force Chief of Staff, himself an A-10 pilot. And the decision wasn’t taken lying down by those Members of Congress most directly affected. An amendment adding $635 million for A-10 operations and asking for a GAO study of the cost and capabilities of all platforms used by the Air Force to perform the close air support mission was one of the last amendments agreed to by the Committee.
- Military compensation reform – Secretary Hagel, earlier this year, described the compensation reform measures the Pentagon is requesting this way, “We will ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their [TRICARE] deductibles and co-pays, but their benefits will remain affordable and generous… as they should be.” The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates reforms similar to these would save $6.5 billion if enacted this year. Here is what the Committee press release says, “Chairman McKeon categorically rejects these cuts.” And no one on the Committee was brave enough to offer an amendment showing any serious consideration of the Pentagon’s request.
In short, there was a marked lack of enthusiasm by Members of the House Armed Services Committee to rise above parochial interests and allow Pentagon leaders to make the cuts they asked for. With the exception of beating back attempts to add money to the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility that the Administration proposes to put in cold storage, there wasn’t a lot to cheer about in the Committee’s actions from a “good government” perspective.
It seems like Members of Congress, having found programs to love, will “never let (them) go!”
Cue swelling background music.
Fade to black.