[updated with final results] CAPITOL HILL: Bipartisan majorities in the House Armed Services Committee have steamrollered proposals to slow down the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and to permit the Pentagon to plan for base closures, but reformers at least made a respectable run at the windmill during markup of fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
“The one and only rule is, ‘my district can’t be reduced by anything,’ [which means] we wind up paralyzed,” said HASC’s most senior Democrat, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, in a characteristically acerbic moment. With the $52 billion-a-year cuts known as sequestration in the offing, he said, “I don’t think this committee has the luxury to be so darn parochial anymore.”
[Updated: After midnight, the committee passed the amended NDAA by 59 votes to 2, authorizing $552.1 billion in the base budget and $85.8 billion in contingency operations (OCO).]
The HASC vote came one day after nine think tanks banded together in large part of convince Congress that it must accept a round of “base closure and realignment,” or BRAC. One expert at the Capitol HIll gathering, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, argued that Congress must consider closing bases in the United States, where the Pentagon estimates it has 20 percent excess capacity. Eaglen cautioned against the trend on Capitol Hill to call for first closing foreign bases, which, of course, don’t have lots of congressional constituents. “It’s a nice convenient thing. It plays well at home,” she said, “but it’s terribly destructive.” In a budgetary “war game” played by the think tanks, she said, they had actually added money for overseas bases.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter vote demonstrated how powerful domestic constituencies can be. It’s backed by the three armed services that buy jets — albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm from the Marines (most pro-F-35) to the Navy (least) — and it supports jobs in 47 states. So the surprise isn’t that 51 committee members from both parties voted against Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth’s amendment to slow the program until the next installment of its complex software is “fully verified and tested.” The surprise was that nine other members joined Duckworth in voting “aye,” actually breaking (barely) into double digits.
“I think I sent a message,” Duckworth told me during a break, pointing out that the 10 “aye” votes included both the top Democrat on the full committee, Adam Smith, and the senior Democrat on the AirLand Forces subcommittee overseeing the F-35, Loretta Sanchez.
“Ms. Duckworth’s amendment is really about putting the pressure on Lockheed Martin” — whose performance the Pentagon itself has criticized — and other contractors, Sanchez told the committee before the vote.
AirLand chairman Michael Turner argued that the subcommittee was already putting on the pressure through oversight and that the F-35 program is finally controlling costs. Duckworth’s proposal would go too far, he argued. By requiring that the next installment of software be fully tested before the Pentagon could buy the 29 US aircraft slated for fiscal year 2014, it would delay the whole program for months, derailing 19 foreign sales and requiring costly catch-up later.
Sanchez dismissed that argument, saying contractors had plenty of work already in the pipeline and they could work through the backlog while the program met the additional testing requirements. But it was the Duckworth amendment, not the F-35, that the committee shot down.
A similar dynamic prevailed over base closures. Legislators always dislike closing military facilities in their districts, and they have particularly bitter memories of the 2005 Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) round, where up-front costs were so large that it has yet to yield net savings. So the version of the bill passed by the Readiness subcommittee prohibited the Pentagon from even “proposing, planning, or initiating another round of base closures.”
That goes “too far,” said Readiness’s top Democrat, Guam’s Madeleine Bordallo: If the Pentagon can’t even plan for BRAC, how can it provide Congress adequate data on what the savings might be?
Immediately after, Rep. Smith offered an amendment he’d prepared that would strike the “planning, proposing, or initiating” language and simply deny a BRAC round in 2014 or 2015. Smith said he’d support a BRAC, which the administration has requested, but he made clear that he wasn’t fighting that battle today; he was just trying to give the Pentagon the right to study the matter. As written, Smith said, the bill says “you can’t even think about it.”
“In the Pentagon, planning is the process,” replied seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes. “Once they start planning, it sets in motion those things and you can’t turn it around” without great effort.
Between sequestration, the drawdown that was already underway before sequester, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s strategic review, there’s simply too much uncertainty to even plan a BRAC round sensibly, let alone conduct one, argued Forbes and the readiness subcommittee chairman, Rob Wittman. “Be very careful about another round of BRAC that locks us into [downsized] force structures,” Forbes warned.
What’s more, argued Joe Courtney of Connecticut, a Democrat joining the anti-BRAC chorus, it takes years for even a well-run base closure process to start yielding savings. Setting aside the 2005 debacle, prior BRAC rounds still entailed so many up-front costs that it took six years to yield net savings. Do the math, Courtney said. It would take until the end of this year for Congress to pass BRAC legislation and another two years for a BRAC commission to study all the options and propose a plan. Add six years to that, and a BRAC wouldn’t yield net savings until roughly 2021 — by which point the 10 years of cuts mandated by the sequester would be almost over and the budget situation totally changed.
It was no surprise that Smith’s amendment failed by 44 votes to 18, but considering the odds, 18 “ayes” was pretty good.
Smith seemed resigned to being a voice in the wilderness today (often the fate of the House minority party). He even tackled what is often called the third rail of Pentagon spending, the pay and benefits soldiers get. He warned that personnel costs are crowding out readiness and modernization because they’ve become so generous. As a member of Congress, Smith said, his healthcare premium is $550 a month, while beneficiaries of the military’s Tricare health plan pay $564 a year: “This is something this committee would rather not think about,” he said, but it will have to. [As expected, the final bill rejected any increases in Tricare fees or any slowdown in the automatic annual increases in military salaries, set for 2014 at 1.8 percent]. But the amendment he was speaking in favor of, California Democrat Jackie Speier’s proposal for a BRAC-style up-or-down vote on an independent commission’s package of personnel reforms, also went down to an overwhelming chorus of “nays.”
Smith also argued that the Navy should be allowed to retire nine aging warships (seven cruisers and two amphibious warfare vessels) instead of having to pay to maintain and modernize them, an economy Republicans have firmly rejected. But he didn’t offer an actual amendment on that front.
Another Pentagon cost-saving measure that Smith didn’t try to save was the Air Force’s attempt to retire the Block 30 model of its Global Hawk high-altitude reconnaissance drones. While the Air Force is happy with its other Global Hawk variants, it has argued, albeit not always consistently, that the Block 30′s mission would be better performed by a manned aircraft, the famous U-2 introduced in the 1950s but much upgraded since. AirLand subcommittee chairman Turner argued that the manned aircraft could hardly match the robot for sheer endurance; unlimited by pilot fatigue, drones can stay on station much longer.
No one rose to debate Turner, and so the Block 30s will fly on until (per the current bill language) at least 2016. Any amendment to retire the drones would certainly have failed, but it was significant that no one even made the gesture of offering one. In Congress, such gestures often count as much as the legislative mechanics, especially when interest groups decide who will get money.
[Updated: Even when the House Armed Services Committee tries to kill a program, other parts of Congress may restore it. That's been the case with another Lockheed Martin program, MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System), which is intended to replace the famous Patriot anti-aircraft and missile defense system. (We've published op-eds both for and against MEADS in the past). An international collaboration of the US, Germany, and Italy, MEADS ran into so many problems that the Pentagon has avowed it will never be deployed -- but the Defense Department argues it would cost more to cancel the program, both in termination fees and ill-feeling among NATO allies, than to just pay to finish up development and then not buy it.
Thoroughly unconvinced, both HASC and its counterpart across Capitol Hill, the Senate Armed Services Committee, ordered the program cut forwith in their policy bills last year, only to have the powerful appropriations committees, which actually write the checks, contradict them and keep MEADS alive -- infuriating authorizers from both parties and both coasts, like California Republican Loretta Sanchez and Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster. This year, HASC voted to kill the program, again.
"Something has gone terribly wrong," Shuster said late Wednesday. "As authorizers, we have to stand up and say no to the appropriators."
MEADS "is like the bathtub scene in Fatal Attraction," added New Jersey Republican Rob Andrews: Just when you think you've finally killed the program, or Glenn Close, it/she pops right back up again. It was a particularly powerful and icky simile that got a big reaction out of Andrews's fellow legislators, which is what the theater of markup is mostly about.]
While Congress is always theatrical, however, there’s a particularly ritualistic element to mark-ups that can trip up even veteran legislators. Smith himself botched the formal wording of a request to speak so often that he finally sighed, “We’ve got another 12 hours here, I’ll get that right.”
But the element of kabuki was particularly pronounced this year because the committee was authorizing spending at levels that, in effect, ignore the sequester cuts.
“It’s coming and we continue to act like it’s not,” Smith said. Not enough Republicans will vote for tax increases, and not enough Democrats for entitlement cuts, to get a “grand bargain” that would replace the sequestration cuts, he said. Without that bargain, Smith warned, “whatever we do here today will wind up being reduced by a significant amount.”
Colin Clark also contributed to this story. Updated June 6th at 10:20 am and 1:15 pm.