Meanwhile, the explanatory statement accompanying the House measure reiterates that cuts to research and procurement accounts must be administered to the “most specific level of budget items,” rather than giving the department some flexibility to set its own cost-cutting priorities and target some programs more heavily than others.
That runs counter to a GOP proposal offered by Senate Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma that would give the department wide latitude to apply the cuts. It’s a move that some senators argued would give the administration too much power to control spending, while Democrats portrayed it as an attempt to put the blame for specific cuts on President Barack Obama. Inhofe failed to get enough votes for cloture on the measure (S 16) last week.
“Appropriators are not giving up their prerogatives,” said Russell Rumbaugh, a national security budget analyst at the Stimson Center and a former staffer on the Senate Budget Committee. The Rogers bill “isn’t the Inhofe bill, do as you wish.”
Rogers’ bill, however, does contain language that gives the Defense Department greater freedom in applying the cuts within its operations and maintenance account, essentially codifying what many believed to be the Pentagon’s own interpretation of the sequester cuts. Indeed, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has said the department will prioritize operations and maintenance funding in the war accounts at the expense of stateside operations.
“We are not curbing or withholding in any way training from units that are going to Afghanistan,” Carter said on March 1. “What that means, though, is that the burden falls more heavily upon the rest” of the force.
Even in its domestic operations, the department would be able to decide among priorities in its operations and maintenance account, the most fungible portion of the defense budget. That account is a broad swath of funding that covers training, exercises, education, maintenance at bases and civilian pay.
“Mowing the lawn is not the equivalent of training off a carrier,” former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim said.
Extending that kind of flexible approach allowed in the operations and maintenance account to procurement and research and development would be the best option for the military in the absence of a deficit reduction deal, Zakheim said.
But with the Inhofe bill dead in the Senate and no consensus on how best to avert the brunt of the sequester cuts, it appears that the Defense Department’s best hope for dealing with at least one of its budgetary problems could be the House appropriators’ bill.
Senate Democrats, however, have not been warm to the House appropriators’ plan, saying that nondefense agencies need some relief from CR and sequester too.
Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.