BY MATTHEW FAY
As part of the Obama administration’s $534 billion request for the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2016, $209.8 billion is meant for the operations and maintenance (O&M) account. That amount is a 7 percent increase over last year. This increase is part of a larger trend in O&M growth, to which the size of the civilian workforce at the Department of Defense is a significant contributor.
O&M is a broad category that includes many Pentagon activities. These include, but are not limited to, recruiting, training, professional military education, fuel costs, military health care, facility maintenance, spare parts, supply operations, day-to-day weapons and equipment operations, and much of the management of the Department of Defense. Given all these activities perhaps it is not surprising O&M spending grew 34 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
The Congressional Research Service found several years ago that O&M spending per active duty service member has grown by between 2.5 percent and 3 percent above inflation since the early 1950s. While this might seem like an exorable trend, MIT defense budget expert Cindy Williams has identified a series of specific decisions over the past six decades that contributed to the ongoing growth. Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in 2010, Williams argued that the growth of “family-friendly” military infrastructure in the 1950s, the Vietnam War, the inability to consolidate infrastructure in the 1970s, and more recently, the expansion of military health care, have all played a role in driving up O&M costs during various periods over the past half century.
If it has been specific decisions causing growth in O&M spending, then specific decisions can help to reverse it. One measure that may help is serious congressional consideration of the changes to the military’s healthcare system proposed by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
But there are significant savings to be had on the civilian side as well. According to CBO, one third of the increase in O&M spending since the beginning of the century is a product of increased pay and benefits for federal civilian employees. That increase reflects growth both in the cost per civilian employee and in the number of civilians employed at the Department of Defense. The Pentagon’s headquarters staff is so large the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that promises to reduce its size have gone for naught because the department cannot say how many people it has and lacks any metric to determine how many it needs.
Despite GAO’s findings, the Pentagon’s overview of its FY 2016 budget request claims that its “Civilian workforce reductions… reflect an analytically based workforce-to-workload review.” That “analytically based” review produced a 0.4 percent reduction in civilian employees, accompanied by a 1.3 percent raise for those who remain.
Reducing the number of civilian employees at the Department of Defense is potentially a source of major savings. The Pentagon’s Defense Business Board recently found $125 billion in savings over the next five years through changes in business practices at the Department of Defense, with early retirements for civilian employees making up part of the package. Last year California Republican Ken Calvert proposed addressing the problem directly, introducing legislation that called for a 15 percent reduction in Pentagon civilians. While the measure did not pass, Calvert reintroduced it at the beginning of the new congressional session. If Congress is serious about preserving America’s military strength, it is the type of measure lawmakers need to give serious consideration.