Flexibility. That’s what the military says it needs to better manage the budgetary havoc it’s facing amid steep and sudden reductions to its accounts, but that’s precisely what it doesn’t have.
After a decade of historic wartime boosts to its coffers, the Pentagon is facing a double whammy that takes much of the decision-making out of the hands of department leaders.
The $46 billion in sequester cuts that went into effect last week must be applied indiscriminately to every military account, except for military personnel. That would only be magnified by a simple extension of the current continuing resolution, which expires March 27.
Both constrain the department’s ability to decide for itself which areas of the budget to cut, leaving the Pentagon unable to set new priorities as it begins a post-war drawdown in spending.
“Leadership in the Pentagon, all of us, have two serious concerns: first, the abrupt and arbitrary cuts imposed by sequester; and second, the lack of budget management flexibility that we now face under the continuing resolution,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon last week.
Lawmakers might end up giving the Pentagon some relief, but Defense officials face a tough battle to get the full flexibility they would prefer.
With the sequester now a reality for the Defense Department and the rest of the federal government, House appropriators offered a plan Monday to deal with at least one of the Pentagon’s fiscal problems.
Unlike most other agencies, which would continue to operate under a stopgap continuing resolution, under the House bill the Defense Department would get a full fiscal 2013 spending bill, with $518.1 billion for the base budget, $10.6 billion for military construction and another $87.2 billion in war money.
That means the department could sign contracts for new programs — something that is forbidden under a CR — and that defense dollars would be targeted, more or less, in the right places.
The total defense spending level under the current CR, which funds the government mostly at last year’s levels, isn’t an issue. The problem is the distribution of the dollars, with some programs receiving an unwanted spike in spending at the expense of more urgent priorities, namely the military’s operations and maintenance accounts. Those accounts would receive $10.4 billion more from a spending measure than they would under an extension of the continuing resolution.
The House bill, however, does very little to help the department manage the across-the-board sequester cuts.
Rogers’ legislation doesn’t give the Defense Department any new authority to move money within its own accounts. The Pentagon would be allowed to transfer up to $4 billion between its various accounts, the standard authority it has enjoyed in recent years.