Members of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers Tuesday that the fiscal 2013 budget package the House intends to take to the floor this week would be a welcome alternative to the conflagration of budget shortfalls that face the government, and would go a considerable distance toward easing the military’s budget challenges in the current year.
House lawmakers are planning a Thursday vote on a funding package that would provide 2013 budgets for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments while leaving the rest of the government in continuing resolution mode.
The plan does not check off every box on the Joint Chiefs’ wish list, but they told the House Appropriations Committee that it would lift much of the burden they face this year: the potential for a full-year continuing resolution topped off by across-the-board cuts under sequestration.
“It’s absolutely critical that we do this,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff. “It mitigates at least one-third of our problem.”
The other two-thirds for the Army are sequestration and unexpected costs involved in the war in Afghanistan this year, contributing to a projected shortfall of $18 billion in Army operation and maintenance accounts under current law.
The House budget plan got an even more enthusiastic reception from Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.
“For us, it’s almost night-and-day,” he said. “Right now, I’m $8.6 billion out of balance in my operations account. This would eliminate $4.6 billion of that right off the bat. What that means in simple terms is that, right now, we can put one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group forward, and pretty much not much else in the rest of the world. If we get a bill, we can restore our covenant with the combatant commanders and get almost all that back.”
No relief for civilian agencies
Under the measure, DoD and VA would receive full budgets mostly along the lines of what they requested for the year. Across-the-board cuts required by sequestration would be left in place, but military leaders say the automatic spending cuts will be more manageable because the slicing would at least come from accounts that generally match up with the Pentagon’s current-year needs, rather than cutting from individual budget lines that are billions of dollars out of whack to begin with.
In the Navy, for example, a full-year CR copied-and-pasted from 2012 would provide several billion dollars more than the service requested for this year for weapons systems and several billion fewer than it needs for its operational accounts, which fund everything from combat training to civilian salaries to military healthcare to maintenance on military barracks.
“It would leave us out of balance,” Greenert said.
Raw numbers aside, the military also would be relieved from the prohibition against initiating new contracts that it had already planned for. A ban on “new starts” is an inherent feature of operating under a continuing resolution.
“We’d get two carrier overhauls. We’d get the construction of a new carrier. We’d get new construction for submarines. We’d get all of our military construction. We don’t have any of that right now,” Greenert said. “All of that comes back, and of course, we’d get facility renovation, which we don’t have right now because we’ve had to put it off to pay for this imbalance.”
Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said a bona fide 2013 budget would let his service sign numerous contracts that have been waiting for a budget, including its final planned multi-year purchase of V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft.
“If I had to buy those things one-at-a-time instead of doing a multi-year, it would cost the government an extra billion dollars at the end of the day,” he said.
More flexibility for budget planners?
The House bill doesn’t cancel sequestration for DoD or any other agency, but it does offer additional mechanisms to soften the blow of the automatic cuts, at least for Defense. Congress would give the Pentagon general authority to reprogram up to $4 billion between any of its accounts and an additional $3.5 billion in “special reprogramming authority” between its military construction accounts.
“It provides flexibility to the military, maybe not as much as they would like,” said Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “But there’s flexibility in the plan that we’re moving this week.”
But with some narrow exceptions, that flexibility would not be available to the rest of the government. Besides DoD and VA, other agencies would continue to operate under both a full-year continuing resolution and sequestration, making the bill unpalatable to the Democratic majority in the Senate.
In the House, the bill met with significant skepticism among members of the Democratic minority, including those who serve on Defense-friendly committees, who would like some relief from sequestration for the rest of the government.
“Why can’t this include other agencies? We have a Homeland Security bill ready to go, and the same is true of many other bills,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.).
Likewise, the bill does not appear to offer agencies such as the Department of Transportation the ability to apportion its program-by-program sequestration cuts in a more thought-out manner, said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.)
“A lot of people act like there’s a line-item in the budget for waste, fraud and abuse in every agency,” Larsen said. “The FAA has to cut about $627 million, but even if all of that were waste, fraud or abuse, they would only be allowed to cut 8-to-10 percent of that under sequestration. That just underscores the inflexibility of sequestration. This flexibility should apply to all agencies. I have folks who are making choices about housing vouchers in my district and choosing who is going to get Meals on Wheels. If it’s good enough for the goose, it’s good enough for the gander.”
The Pentagon said earlier this week that its 2013 cutbacks, under a scenario that included both sequestration and a continuing resolution, would include the closure of military commissaries one-day-per-week, a potential reduction in the staff and funding available to run military healthcare facilities, and the furlough of about 15,000 school teachers on military bases out of the broader population of 780,000 civil servants in the military services who would be told to take an effective 20 percent salary cut for the remainder of the year.
No veto threat
For DoD, the enactment of a 2013 budget could change that, said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, even if sequestration remains in effect. “It allows us to figure out a way around this idea of furloughing 180,000 great civilian airmen. We want no part of that,” he said.
The House proposal includes other items that make it unlikely for it to pass the Senate in its current form, including bans on funding for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
Nonetheless, the White House, in its official response to the bill’s introduction, did not voice an explicit veto threat. OMB said only that it was “deeply concerned” about the measure.
“While the legislation includes the Department of Defense … the remainder of federal agencies are left to operate at last year’s level, which will impede their ability to provide services to Americans and efficiently allocate funding to key programs including those in infrastructure, clean energy, education, and research and development,” the White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy. “The administration looks forward to working with the Congress to refine the legislation to address these concerns.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.