SecDef Should Tackle Personnel Costs

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel went before the House Armed Services Committee to answer questions about President Obama’s proposed FY 2014 military budget. The request for $526.6 billion for the base DoD budget is $3.9 billion lower than the 2012 enacted level. While this reduction is a positive step, it doesn’t go far enough given the nation’s fiscal state and changing military requirements, and it exceeds the spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act by $55 billion.

For more insight on the budget numbers and what this means politically, see my colleague Ben Friedman’s excellent post from yesterday. I want to focus on an area of the budget that cries out for reform: rising personnel costs.

During his testimony, Hagel reiterated the need to rein in such costs, echoing themes from his speech last week at the National Defense University. The president’s budget aims to reduce these costs by cutting end strength, limiting the size of pay increases (to 1 percent), and making “benefit adjustments” to TRICARE. Such adjustments are critical to the department in the long term.

A political battle over these types of reductions is all but certain; however, some members of Congress—perhaps most—will resist. This is unfortunate, especially for fiscal conservatives who understand the need to reform entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, yet fail to see the need to contain skyrocketing costs in personnel and benefits at DoD. The arguments are the same: the current path is unsustainable; reforms are needed or the costs will consume the rest of the budget; and if you implement the reforms sooner, they can be more incremental and less disruptive to the troops. But then again, farsightedness isn’t Congress’s strong suit.

Personnel costs, which account for approximately 32 percent of the budget request (over 45 percent when civilian pay and benefits are included), need to be addressed. The administration has proposed cutting conventional forces—mainly from within the Army and Marine Corps—by 100,000. Hagel has mentioned reducing the civilian workforce, but he hasn’t outlined specifically how he would downsize the “world’s largest back office.”

As Ben Friedman points out, it is also important to keep in mind that the $526.6 billion base budget request does not accurately represent the total cost of national defense. For instance, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCOs)—war funding—is a separate request. Many believe that as we draw down in Afghanistan, OCO funding will come down. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in yesterday’s hearing that those costs are likely to remain fairly steady for the next few years. Despite the fact that many budget projections count the drawdown in Afghanistan as “savings,” the United States will remain in Afghanistan for years to come.

When you factor in the budgets of other the defense-related items—nuclear weapons management under the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs—total spending on national defense soars to over $900 billion.

There is plenty of room for further cuts in this massive total, especially if we rethink what we ask our military to do. Shedding security commitments and unnecessary missions would allow for a budget that reflects our level of security. But the administration can start by addressing the costs relating to personnel. Otherwise, the future does not look bright for Pentagon budgets.