Lawmakers critique Mattis for presenting Defense budget without a defense strategy

Defending his department’s $52 billion budget increase for the first time on Capitol Hill this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis ran into heavy skepticism from the committee members who might normally be his most natural allies for a Pentagon plus-up.

Among them: Why has the administration still not delivered a strategy for Afghanistan? Where’s its plan to deal with the Budget Control Act? And why isn’t the proposed increase even bigger?

Mattis acknowledged to the House and Senate armed services committees that the spending plan does nothing to provide for the increases in military end strength and force structure that President Trump promised on the campaign trail or that the military service chiefs say they need. Rather, it’s about filling in readiness holes that were created by four years of spending caps.

“I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect,” he said. “Four years later, I’ve returned to the department and I have been shocked by what I have seen about our readiness to fight … It took us years to get into this situation. It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there are several problems with the proposal, as much as he agrees with Mattis’ assessments of the readiness problem.

For one, it is technically illegal, since the $640 billion proposal violates the Budget Control Act by $52 billion without proposing its outright abolition or a politically workable alternative.

For another, in a departure from past practice, the budget does not forecast the Pentagon’s needs over the next five years. Instead, it proposes funding levels for a single year while Mattis and other senior leaders reexamine the military’s future requirements, including a new strategy for Afghanistan.

Reporter Jared Serbu discusses this story on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

“We just can’t keep going like this,” McCain said. “You can’t expect us to fulfill the three demands you’re giving us – a funding increase, passing a budget, providing a stable budget — if you don’t give us a strategy. I’m not criticizing you, but there are problems within this administration. I was confident that within the first 30-to-60 days we would have a strategy from which to start working. So all I can tell you is that unless we get a strategy from you, you’re going to get a strategy from us. The fact is it’s not our job. It’s yours.”

Another unusual departure from this year’s budget request is the Pentagon’s unfunded requirements list.

Ordinarily, the military services use the list to detail additional quantities of weapons systems they would buy if Congress allocated money above-and-beyond the budget request. But this year’s list — totaling $31 billion — also includes funding for additional personnel and more money for readiness programs.

Many lawmakers felt that was an indication that the budget Mattis proposed wasn’t equal to the amount he believes the military truly needs in 2018, leaving aside its future ambitions for a larger force.

He told the armed services committees that he fully supports the additional spending the military services included in their wishlists, and that, taken together with the actual budget proposal, they present a total picture of DoD’s requirements.

“We’re trying to be informed by the reality of what the law says, but at the same time not being shy about where we’re really at,” he said. “I don’t know how I would bring something to you that laid out a budget that completely ignored the BCA. The president is already ignoring it to the tune of $52 billion with the budget we submitted. We’ve got to work together on this and get a grip on reality, because it’s like we’re all walking around as if we’re victims.”

But several lawmakers appeared frustrated that the administration had not taken a more forceful approach to dealing with the spending caps, saying that it’s difficult for Capitol Hill’s defense advocates to convince their colleagues to support more robust military funding if the Pentagon itself is not entirely clear about its budgetary and military objectives.

“If we’re going to bust the BCA, why don’t we bust it to what we really need?” McCain asked. “Why come forward here and complain all about the BCA, when what you’re asking for is not sufficient?”

“It’s very late in the game,” added Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, noting that the start of fiscal 2018 is only three-and-a-half months away, leaving little time for Congress to reconstitute the Pentagon’s separate requests into appropriation and authorization bills in a way that also works around the impending budget caps.

“Just institutionally, the ability for us to reallocate resources between defense and nondefense without any guideline or framework from the administration is difficult. It’s not impossible, but the budget that’s been submitted will not work,” he said. “If nothing is done to change the BCA, which this proposal is silent on, the $52 billion we give you will be taken back from you, but in an even more harmful fashion because it would require across-the-board cuts.”

Pentagon officials have previously said that the 2019 budget will be a more traditional one, including a five-year forecast of spending demands.

But Mattis said those long-range forecasts can’t be completed until he’s had a chance to develop a new defense strategy, partially informed by a bottom-up review of future military requirements that the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been working on for the past 18 months.

And in response to congressional critiques that it’s taken the Trump administration too long to develop its future Defense plans, he laid part of the blame at the feet of the Obama administration.

“We entered a strategy-free environment, and we are scrambling to put one together,” he said. “Anyone who thinks an interagency, whole-of-government strategy can be done rapidly is probably someone who hasn’t dealt with it. As far as the strategy for Afghanistan, it’s coming very shortly. We have broader strategies that we’re building on, having to do with NATO and allies in the Pacific so that we’re not putting this all on the backs of the American military. But it does take a lot of effort to walk into the levels of strategic thinking that we inherited and try to create something that’s sustainable.”

But members of Congress remained puzzled about the administration’s approach, given the president’s clear statements of intent to build a larger military. Trump said he would build an active duty Army of 540,000 soldiers and a Navy of more than 350 ships. Considering that increases of those magnitudes would take several years to accomplish, many wondered why the Pentagon would delay the process by a full year.

“If there’s this universal agreement that 355 is where we need to be, we can’t mark time,” said Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the chairman of the House subcommittee on seapower and projection forces. “Our adversaries are doing everything they can in building additional capacity. It does seem counterintuitive to say that we’re just going to do nine ships this year, and this year’s budget request actually cuts a billion dollars out of the shipbuilding accounts.”

Mattis said he was also in a hurry to build a larger military and said doing so is necessary to meet global threats, but that the amount of funding DoD was able to propose for the single year was limited by the “carrying capacity” of the president’s overall budget.

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was bothered by the fact that the administration has not given Congress any indication of what it would ultimately cost to keep the military buildup promises the president has made.

“I can’t help but think that that’s because you didn’t want to look at it and see just how outlandish those numbers would be versus the money we have,” he said. “One of the things I hope this year’s NDAA is able to do is to add an amendment when we’re on the floor to repeal the BCA and the budget caps. Members need to take that vote, because the Budget Control Act was six years ago. It was passed with the goal of reaching a grand bargain. That didn’t happen. It’s irrelevant. That’s not to say that a $20 trillion debt and a $700 billion deficit is not a problem, it’s just that it’s obvious that the Budget Control Act is a terrible way to go about trying to address it.”

But even if Congress finally agreed to press the abort button on the BCA, six years after its enactment, it would only solve the most pressing of DoD’s budget challenges.

As Mattis noted in his testimony, the department’s readiness problems are partly to do with the fact that it’s been funded by a series of 30 continuing resolutions over the past decade. In each of those years, the military services and Defense agencies have had to wait several months into any given fiscal year before they knew how much budget authority they had available.

And 2018 is highly unlikely to be any different, said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Budget Committee. Neither the House nor the Senate has even taken the step of passing a non-binding budget resolution to set the top-line levels that Congress is willing to spend for 2018.

“There’s zero chance that the budget process is going to work,” Perdue said.  “There are 43 working days left before the end of this fiscal year. We’re headed for another continuing resolution unless we have an omnibus — that’s the best thing we can hope for. The budget process is broken. It’s why we’re sitting here today, it’s why we’re at a historic low in terms of spending on our military and why we won’t fix this long-term.”