WASHINGTON: Congress seems increasingly resigned to sequestration cuts and base closures, ideas which once met fierce rejection on Capitol Hill. That’s the counterintuitive takeaway from Chuck Hagel’s first hearing as Defense Secretary on the 2014 budget request, one largely overtaken by events.
The weary notes that legislators struck on the budget probably had something to do with the nearly four-hour session required to take questions from almost 60 HASC members on everything from the new Distinguished Warfare Medal to missile defense against North Korea — and even then not everyone on the committee got a turn. But there’s a much deeper layer of exhaustion, one that comes from two years of budget gridlock. What once seemed intolerable now looks inevitable.
True, HASC Chairman Buck McKeon did his now ritual denunciation of the president. He criticized Obama for taking “an additional $120-150 billion from the military [over 10 years] depending on how you measure the cut” — decrying a proposed cut which, however you slice it, is still less than required by the 2011 Budget Control Act and sequestration.
But only the committee’s top Democrat explicitly called for repealing those cuts: We must “stop sequestration as soon as possible,” said Rep. Adam Smith, “because it’s the classic gift that keeps on giving” year after year after year. “Our budget is our mess,” Smith said, and “all three – House, Senate, President — have to come together” to fix it.
But that was all that remained of the once resounding chorus of HASC calls to stop sequestration. The 2014 budget request has gotten far more criticism among pundits for ignoring the sequestration cuts than for anything else. Today, one HASC member, Hawaii Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, expressed bafflement that “the assumption is the sequester will be repealed.”
Hagel’s response was telling: “We’re not assuming anything,” he said. “That’s why we’re undertaking a review” — a review that will consider the full impact of sequestration. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly make clear that they understand big cuts are coming — and that, in fact, the main reason that the Pentagon’s 2014 request doesn’t account for them is simply that the ponderous process that builds the budget couldn’t adjust in time.
“The reality of budgets [is] they take about a year to prepare,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said. “Sequestration kicked in 1 March” (after months of the administration refusing to plan for it, something Dempsey declined to mention).
“It takes a long time to build a budget [for] a $600 billion enterprise,” agreed Hagel.
“Sequestration is the law. It’s not debatable for me,” said Hagel. “This is what’s on the books now” (even though it’s not in the budget request). “I am an advocate for this Department.. but I also have to be realistic.”
While Hagel denied that President Obama had appointed him to slash spending — he wasn’t going to “cut the heart out of the Pentagon,” he said — he made clear that he accepted spending cuts were going to happen. “I can’t lead my institution into a swamp of knife-fighting over protesting what’s already in place,” he said in a remarkably mixed metaphor.
In this grim fiscal environment, even another round of Base Closure And Realignment now looks possible. Obama asked for BRAC authority in last year’s budget too, but Congress rejected him out of hand in no uncertain terms. Today, there was no outrage — and even a few statements of support.
“There are places we can cut in the defense budget that will not effect our national security that Congress consistently stops you from doing, [especially] base closure and personnel costs,” Rep. Smith said.
Connecticut Democrat Joe Courtney and Virginia Republican Robb Wittman argued that BRACs took years to make back the money spent to shutter bases, especially the 2005 round — which, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale countered, was highly unrepresentative. BRACs done before 2005, Hale said, yielded net savings in four or five years, “six at the most.” But even Courtney and Wittman refrained from the kind of brusque dismissals of the mere possibility of a BRAC that legislators have made in the past.
The only other member to ask about base closures was Colorado Republican Mike Coffman, a tentative supporter: “I support your call for a BRAC, if in fact we’ve restructured our forces,” he said. (“Restructuring” refers to the ongoing reduction in the Army and Marines by 100,000 troops, producing a smaller force which, as Hagel pointed out, would logically fewer bases to house it.) “What I would like is a commitment to look at overseas bases” as well, Coffman said mildly, a request Hagel was swift to grant.
“I understand the politics of this,” said Hagel. “It’s very imperfect,” he said — repeating a word he’s used repeatedly to characterize the BRAC process — “but still I think it’s an important time to do it. It’s worthwhile.”
Hagel and Dempsey also took time to call for controlling the rising costs of military personnel, noting their plan to increase fees and co-pays for the Pentagon’s healthcare plan for troops, retirees, and their dependents, known as Tricare. Hagel was relatively muted in his advocacy — even in the face of Rep. Smith’s prodding him to say more — but the committee members were equally muted in their opposition to ideas they have shot down peremptorily in the past.
Indeed, the only thing committee members seemed to want to spend more on was missile defense, not surprising given the rising anxiety over a nuclear-armed North Korea. California’s Loretta Sanchez, ranking member of the tactical air and land forces subcommittee, raised the standard Democratic objection to deploying insufficiently tested Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) systems, but her fellow Democrat from Guam, Madeleine Bordallo, was very interested in having THAAD anti-missile batteries around to defend her home island. (The THAAD battery may not stay in Guam, Gen. Dempsey said, but other systems can fill in: “We’re not leaving Guam unprotected.”)
Even the one member to call for cutting a missile defense program couched his argument in terms of freeing up funds for better forms of missile defense. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, drafted by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, prohibited funding for MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System). But the appropriations committees restored it last month, and the President’s 2014 request included $400 million to wind down the program — almost as much as the $500 million he cut elsewhere in missile defense, said Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster.
Zeroing out MEADS now might result in penalties or even lawsuits from the program’s Italian and German partners, said Hagel, and his lawyers advised him that the Pentagon had to follow the appropriations language.
But the institutional rivalry between authorizers like HASC and the appropriations committees is legendary. Snapped Shuster: “We write the laws, the appropriators just cut checks, so the law’s pretty clear…. Your lawyers are wrong again.”
As the budget process sinks further into gridlock and dysfunction, however, “clear” is the last word to use to describe what happens in Washington.