WASHINGTON: “We’re long past the point of doing more with less,” said the blunt-spoken Under Secretary of the Navy, Robert Work. “We are going to be doing less with less in the future.”
But with a continuing resolution, sequestration in three weeks, and to-be-determined defense cuts a likely part of any “grand bargain” to avert the fiscal cliff, how much less is maddeningly unclear. So it’s impossible to make intelligent plans or choices.
Because the Defense Department is such a massive enterprise, Work went on, “we start building a budget 18 months before Congress could possibly enact it. [Now] we’re under a continuing resolution for six months; we don’t have a budget enacted; none of us know the money we’re going to have this year — let alone next.”
“We’re all planning under extreme uncertainty right now,” said Work, speaking at a Government Executive breakfast on Thursday. After months of insisting it was not preparing to implement sequestration, the Pentagon said Wednesday that it had at last received Office of Management and Budget guidance to begin to plan. But “we’ve just started. [There's] reallynothing to report,” Work said. “We will be doing internal planning over the next three weeks and keeping our fingers crossed.”
The real problem with sequestration isn’t Pentagon-level planning or the lack thereof, however, but implementation at defense activities across the country, added acting Air Force Under Secretary Jamie Morin (pictured above), speaking alongside Work.
“At the headquarters level it’s not that hard because the law specifies what you’re to do,” leaving little room for choices, Morin said. “The implementation of sequestration is at the local level where you have to make decisions about what you’re going to stop doing because you don’t have any money,” he went on. “I’m worried about creating those massive inefficiencies at the bottom level.”
The political gridlock has already undermined not only the Pentagon’s budget but also its strategy.
“The fiscal environment made it all the more pressing, but we needed to relook the defense strategy regardless of the fiscal environment,” Morin said, simply because the wars in the Middle East are winding down while Asian powers are rising up. That’s the logic behind the pivot to the Pacific that the Pentagon announced in January, setting forth the strategic framework for its budget request. “We made a very good first effort in the 2013 budget submission,” Morin said, “[but] we still don’t have a 2013 budget enacted by Congress, so to some extent we haven’t even started that shift in the real world of execution.”
The present paralysis, moreover, is just the latest worsening of long-time trends. In 10 of the past 11 years, Morin noted, Congress has not passed a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year, which means the government operates for months under continuing resolutions — which generally fix spending at last year’s levels and do not permit starting any new programs. As a result, Morin said, the Department no longer signs new contracts in the first quarter of the fiscal year.
“That’s inefficiency that comes out of the pocket of the American taxpayer, [and] it is part of the reason we do not get the maximum amount of combat capability out of each dollar,” Morin lamented. “It’s one of the frustrating things about working in government.”
So, I asked when the floor was open for questions, is the root of the problem a dysfunctional Congress?
There was a long pause and lots of nervous laughter. Then Morin said, “I’m going to step off the stage for a second.” The young undersecretary, a former Senate staffer himself, grabbed his binder from the table where this reporter was sitting, pulled out a slim pamphlet, and held it aloft.
“You have right here the Constitution — I should have had it in my pocket,” Morin said. “It gives the Congress the power and the responsibility to raise armies and maintain navies. The Air Force actually isn’t mentioned,” he added wryly. (“So give it back to the Army,” called out a soldier).
“The Constitution is written the way it is for a reason,” Morin went on, turning serious, “so we have a responsibility for a mature dialogue with the Congress, in which we lay out the best military judgment of the uniformed leaders [and] the civilians who provide the oversight to that structure, and we will implement the policies and laws that the Congress writes.”
“If you ask most members of Congress, they will acknowledge they could do a better job of providing stability,” Morin concluded. “It’s not a matter of ill will….It’s a matter of institutional logjam.
“We’re in the fifth defense drawdown since the end of World War II, It’s not like this is something we haven’t done before,” added Work, “[and] whenever there is a defense downturn, that is where the Congress’s role is absolutely most important, because you have to make broad strategic choices.”
In brief: Capitol Hill, it’s up to you.