WASHINGTON: As the House and Senate budget committees confer behind closed doors, the Pentagon’s top budgeteer says that even though he doesn’t know what’s going on he still has hope.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” Robert Hale, the Defense Department comptroller, told the Defense One conference here this afternoon. “I remain at least cautiously optimistic that we’ll see some kind of micro-deal.”
What’s the best case that Hale can convince himself is possible? It’s not full funding as requested in the president’s budget, he said, but some kind of stopgap relief from the automatic spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, often referred to as sequestration. His best hope, Hale said, is “that we get at least a two-year deal, I could even hope for maybe a five-year one…and not at the BCA cap levels, at somewhat higher levels, offset however Congress and the President can agree to.”
In the near term, though, having hope makes Hale’s job harder. With no way to know if budget negotiations will be a breakthrough or a debacle, he and his staff have to plan for both extremes at once — in the full knowledge that the final outcome will probably be somewhere in the middle. If Hale commits his frazzled staff to working out in detail the plan for, say, full sequestration, he said, “then two weeks from now, hopefully, we reach a budget deal that changes all the numbers.”
“We’re looking at ranges because we don’t know where we’re going to end up, [and] some of the ranges are pretty wide,” Hale said. “We’re trying to be ready but we’re not sure what we’re trying to be ready for.”
Hale acknowledged, it was “in hindsight, perfect hindsight” a mistake not to plan for sequestration. “A year ago, I bet Gen. [Martin] Dempsey a good bottle of scotch that they’d never do sequestration,” Hale said ruefully. “Scotch is expensive.”
That said, Hale went on. “Had we planned a year ago, almost all the plans would have been wrong…..Sequestration was supposed to go into effect January 1st. Congress postponed it two months and changed the amount.”
In the near term — and perhaps for years to come — uncertainty over balance sheets takes a toll in the real world. Because training and maintenance are the most liquid accounts available to pay the sequester bill, military readiness has suffered.
“I liken defense to an insurance policy,” Hale said. “What we’ve done has greatly raised the deductible. If you never have to make a claim, well, you won’t notice it. If you have to make a claim – if there’s a majority contingency operation – I think we’ll regret what we’ve had to do.”