Tag: war funding

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. 

Obama’s 2014 Military Spending Request

The Obama administration $640.5 billion fiscal year 2014 request for military spending authority is predictably unrealistic and excessive. Still, political circumstance continues to drag the Pentagon toward fiscal restraint. 

That $640.5 billion includes $88.5 billion for war (a.k.a. overseas contingency operations), $526.6 for non-war spending in the Department of Defense, and another $25.4 billion spending outside DoD, mostly for nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, which officially counts as “national defense” or budget function 050 spending. 

Those spending levels ignore the budgetary cap set by law and the political reality it reflects. The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war “national defense” spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. Were Congress to enact the president’s budget and leave the cap in place, that total would be sequestered equally across “defense” spending categories, including the war. 

Even if Congress agrees to a grand bargain altering the caps, military spending will likely face additional cuts. Republican resistance to tax hikes and Democratic protection of entitlements mean that any deal they cut will likely again target discretionary spending, more than half of which goes to the military. Of course, Congress’ failure thus far to undo this year’s more onerous sequestration suggests that no deal is likely. An over-under on where the non-war Pentagon budget winds up for 2014 would be closer to $500 billion than $550 billion. 

In a certain light, there is some sacrifice here. The non-war DoD request of $526.6 billion is just $1.2 billion more than last year’s request. Factoring in inflation, it’s about a 1.5 percent cut. This budget would bring the portion of GDP going to the military to 4 percent, versus. 4.3 percent this year, according to the administration. And as Russell Rumbaugh points out, DoD’s projected spending over ten years is down $114 billion from a year ago. 

On the other hand, the request would be a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration (see page 10 here). Economic growth is the main reason that a declining portion of national wealth is going to the military. And the cuts scheduled over the decade would arrive mostly in its second half, when someone else is president, meaning that the cuts are basically imaginary

Additionally, the “placeholder” request of $88.5 billion in Pentagon funds for war—the same as last year—is suspiciously high. The administration says they will revise the request once they determine force levels in Afghanistan. But the president already announced plans to halve total U.S. troops there from 68,000 to 34,000 by next February. Even with the increased cost from exiting, the total cost should be far lower. The Pentagon is likely continuing to use the war budget to dodge caps and fund personnel and other non-war functions. Meanwhile, the administration still claims to support a ten-year cap on war spending. As Charles Knight and I explain here, that is a feckless gesture at a good idea. 

One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse. Another, more fundamental, reason is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus. Hopefully the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, shares some of that skepticism and will demonstrate it once he has time to guide the budget. 

Given our safety, we should stop spending on the military as we did at the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon budget should comply with the spending cap by making choices among missions and goals, rather than clinging to existing alliances and ambitions. The cuts on offer are mostly efficiencies—they require doing the same things more cheaply. Some reforms of this kind, like the administration’s proposal to increase TRICARE fees and start another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round, can save big bucks, though Congress will probably ignore them. Bigger cuts require larger choices. If, for example, we shed allies and the pretension that stability everywhere depends on our military presence, far deeper cuts to each service, especially the ground forces, are possible. We could cut a leg or two of the nuclear delivery-vehicle triad without sacrificing deterrence. One virtue of austerity is to encourage these sorts of overdue choices.

To (Ironically) Avoid Sequestration, Congress Could Declare War

The Senate is back in session this week as the battle over military spending, and the prospect of sequestration, continues to sizzle. Last Friday the Office of Management and Budget concluded  that war funding—also known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO)—would not be exempted from sequestration, contradicting the Pentagon’s earlier claims. Predictably, this has angered the GOP and provided fodder for those who oppose military spending cuts on any grounds.

But war funding—$88.5 billion for FY 2013—should never have been considered separate from military spending. This is a practice, gradually accepted in the past 10-15 years, that distorts the size of the defense budget, making it appear smaller. It provides the illusion that Congress and the current administration are fiscally responsible.

The irony of current flap over OMB’s ruling is that Congress could undo sequestration if it simply declared war. In today’s Cato podcast, Benjamin Friedman, research fellow for defense and homeland security studies, explains that the federal code, going back to the 1980s, holds that a declaration of war will reverse sequestration. But Congress doesn’t declare war anymore; members routinely ignore their constitutionally mandated obligation. Those who are the most vocal opponents of sequestration—Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and others—have a tool at their disposal that they will never consider.

Listen to the podcast below to hear Friedman provide a primer on the battle over war funding (OCO), sequestration, and the defense budget bills.

Debt Deal Signed, Fights over Military Spending Next

The legislation signed by President Obama yesterday, as a solution to the debt ceiling debate, includes the possibility of cuts to military spending. But as Chris Preble points out, the legislation guarantees no defense cuts. Republicans will try to dump all the required cuts on non-defense areas. And the White House has already distanced itself from the prospect of any real defense budget cuts, as did Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both support only the first round of cuts, which will at best halt Pentagon growth at roughly inflation.

On The Skeptics blog, I take a more detailed look at deal’s likely impact on military spending. I also examine its political effect, arguing that it will cause at least four political fights.

The first concerns war funding. As Russell Rumbaugh notes, hawks will be tempted to shift the Pentagon’s bill into the war appropriations (overseas contingency operations, officially), which the bill does not cap. That problem is not new, but the bill worsens it. We’ll see if the White House and Congressional Democrats fight to stop it.

Second, for the two years while the security cap is in place, the bill pits security agencies and their congressional advocates in zero sum combat. For obvious electoral reasons, no one will go after veterans. Defense hawks and top military officers will push to make DHS and State eat the minor cuts required. House Republicans negotiated to expand the security category for this reason. DHS, State and the subcommittees that pass their appropriations will fight back. Republicans and thus the House will tend to the first camp; Democrats and the Senate to the second. So the fight will occur in the appropriation committees, conference, and probably White House-Hill discussions. The paucity of cuts limits the carnage, of course.

Third, if the legislation remains in place after two years and a single cap covers all discretionary spending, the fight will shift and become more partisan. To get under the cap, Republicans will push domestic spending cuts. Democrats will prefer defense cuts. The 2012 elections will determine the institutional contours of this fight.

The fourth fight will center on the Joint Committee, with the most interesting conflict among Republicans. Democrats will likely advocate taxes and more defense spending cuts. Even if they can get a deal including taxes with Republican committee members, the House is unlikely to pass it. Democrats’ most attractive option may then be sequestration. Anti-tax Republicans will accept that outcome but clash with neoconservative Republicans happy to raise taxes to pay for military expenditures.

Those that see this plan as a disaster for defense ought to explain why hawks, like Rep. Buck McKeon (Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee), Rep. Bill Young (a leading House defense appropriator), and Senator John McCain, support it. They evidently prefer this deal to any available alternative and are gambling that they can protect military spending from the knife.

My guess is that defense spending will be level in 2012, growing roughly with inflation, but get hit by sequestration, meaning real defense cuts in 2013. After that, who knows? The political dynamics will then be quite different.

An original version of this post appeared on the National Interest.