The budget the Pentagon pitched to lawmakers last week contains significant cuts. It gets rid of the A-10 airplane and reduces benefits for soldiers and military retirees. It also lowers the number of troops in the Army to its smallest size since before World War II.
Yet in reality, the plan would change little. A close examination of the spending proposal shows that DOD continues to operate in an alternate reality when it comes to spending. It simply ignores sequestration in the long-term and is tallied in a way that puts troop levels at the center of a political fight. It also contains cuts to benefits that DOD planners believe lawmakers won’t make.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan to Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers that planned budget cuts of $600 billion over the next decade would “compromise our national security.”
“This is not the military the president nor I want. It isn't the military that this committee or this Congress wants for America's future. But it is the path we're on unless Congress does something to change the law,” Hagel said, referring to the Budget Control Act.
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Hagel then put the blame for the it squarely on Congress, telling CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that there is nothing the Pentagon can do to improve readiness.
“It isn’t me cutting the budget," he said. "It’s the Congress’ decision on sequestration. So it isn’t the secretary of defense or the president doing this, and I think we should clear that up a little bit here, too."
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“In a sense it said the five year plan they submitted to Congress was not real,” Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and a defense spending expert, said. “If I’m a member of congress, I’m not buying here. It was funny budgeting in a way, and it’s not quite right. “
The most obvious way that the spending plans ignore reality is that it ignores sequestration. Over the next five years, DOD plans to spend $115 billion more than allowed by the Budget Control Act. And Republicans have no intention of changing that law.
“I don't see any way that [the budget cut] is going away right now," Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last week. "It's the law, and we're stuck with it.”
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DOD did include the sequester in its $496 billion request for 2015. But from 2016 to 2019, DOD simply assumes the law would no longer exist.
The Pentagon and the White House are also playing politics with troop levels. Their current budget would cut the number of troops in the Army to 420,000 if the sequester stays in place. But it was written in a misleading way: the only area where it accounted for sequester was troop size.
Now, according to Brig. Gen. John Ferrari, the Army’s deputy director of program analysis, removing the sequester would allow the Army to maintain troop levels of 440,000 to 450,000. This shifts the blame for the shrinking Army on to Congress. (There are currently 520,000 troops in the Army.)
“I don’t see any sentiment on the Hill to undo the Budget Control Act,” Adams said. “The people who matter are saying no.”
Adams added that he doubted lawmakers would stomach cuts to beloved programs like the A-10. He said that political interests, mainly from Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), who have A-10 interests in their districts, would make it hard to kill the program. Congress has also steadfastly refused to start another round of military base closings, despite repeated requests from Hagel.
The most untouchable part of DOD’s budget is troop benefits. Hagel has proposed a broad array of changes, from limiting housing allowances to pay freezes for officers.
“In my judgment, he’s not going to get them,” Adams said of the cuts. “I give him full credit for trying. Congress shows no desire to approve them…I don’t see any sentiment on the Hill to do anything about it.”
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