CAPITOL HILL: Despair, distrust, and sequestration dominated yesterday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s 2015 budget request. Almost everyone on HASC hates the automatic budget cuts, and the president has proposed a way to bypass them, but comments from committee leaders and backbenchers alike showed how political gridlock makes any solution look far out of reach.
“We really have to live within right now something that I hate, and I’m sure you do and most of the members of the committee do, but it is the law and we’re stuck with it right now,” HASC chairman Buck McKeon told his high-level witnesses, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale. (Both McKeon and Hale are retiring soon).
Yes, the president’s budget adds $26 billion to defense as part of a budget gimmick called the “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” Beyond 2015 it assumes Congress manages to roll back sequestration and authorize $115 billion above the current law over four years. “I’m not really paying much attention to the $115 and I’m not paying much attention to that [$26 billion],” McKeon said bluntly, because that’s in the realm of, ‘that would be wonderful but it’s not going to happen.’”
In fact, the California congressman said, the administration’s budget gimmicks mask the severity of the problem and make it harder to mobilize the American people to solve it. For example, referring to the media outcry that the regular active-duty Army was shrinking to pre-World War II levels, McKeon said, “I saw stories that seemed to get peoples’ attention [saying] the Army going down to 440,000. I want them to know …. it really goes down to 420.”
Actually, the committee’s top Democrat, Washington’s Adam Smith said, the administration’s numbers do add up — “it wasn’t just magical thinking, they did actually put in offsets” — and it’s the Republicans who are muddying the waters for the public.
“One of the things that harms the ability of the American people to understand this,” Smith said, “is the message…from the Republican party has been ‘Obama’s cutting defense’. So the American people get the impression here that there’s no problem here, that if Obama simply chose not to cut defense, everything would be fine. And that’s simply false. The administration is budgeting to the number we all gave him.
“We continually hear Republicans saying the Obama administration is bound and determined to cut defense and that’s all this is about,” Smith said. “As long as you deliver this message, we got no hope in getting out of this.”
Smith opposes the sequestration cuts and would prefer a grand bargain that cuts entitlement spending and increased tax revenues instead. Failing that — and Congress has consistently failed to do it — ” I would turn off sequestration tomorrow without an offset…so we stop kicking the hell out of our defense budget,” Smith said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Just how deep the paralyzing distrust goes was laid bare towards very end of the hearing, when junior Republican Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma said that Obama was “holding that $26 billion [for defense] hostage” by tying it to $30 billion of domestic spending that are also part of the OSGI fund.
“The challenge a lot of us have on this committee is, we want to be there, we want to help, but it’s difficult when the president puts us in a position where, OK, we will do that [i.e. increase defense spending] if, if you agree to an additional $30 billion dollars in domestic social spending,” Bridenstine said. “It’s almost like he put in a poison pill intentionally so that the $26 billion would never get voted on.”
So there’s no sign from either side of a solution any time soon. That will cost us in readiness, the Joint Chiefs chairman warned, taking the risk of interrupting chairman McKeon to make the point.
“What I think would be unacceptable: If we continue to kick this can down the road believing somehow that it’ll be solved by our successors,” Gen. Dempsey said, “when in fact because we’re kicking it down the road and not making the tough decisions collaboratively, we’re eating away at the nation’s readiness for conflict.”