Proposed Pentagon cuts could lead to bigger budgets in future years

As we approach the release of the Pentagon’s budget request, many questions remain, but one thing is certain – the request will be controversial, it will scare a lot of folks, and all of the hoopla might just work to the Pentagon’s advantage in future years. On Monday, Defense Secretary Hagel delivered a major speech outlining his upcoming $496 billion budget request. This number excludes tens of billions in funding for the war in Afghanistan, as well as a $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” that the President plans to ask Congress to make a little additional room for this year. The budget will be released in two pieces, with most major details on Tuesday, March 4 and supporting documents and details on March 11. It has become clear in the week since Hagel’s speech that the Pentagon will also be preparing a separate, sequestration-level budget, in the event that Congress rejects the higher spending plan, but that’s not the budget the Defense Department plans to push. Rather, the plan that will be released on Tuesday will stick to the budget caps outlined in the Budget Control Act this year, then rise steadily over the next five years to include an additional $115 billion. Hagel emphasized in his speech his view that while the cuts proposed for fiscal 2015 look difficult to implement, they would be far worse if the department was required to reduce spending in the outyears. But that assumes the cuts the Pentagon has proposed for this year are allowed to take place. The $115 billion figure factors in savings from a theoretical Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in 2017 that Congress will never permit, thereby understating the amount which the proposal exceeds sequestration limits. And that’s not the only Pentagon proposal that Congress is almost certain not to allow. Proposals to eliminate the Air Force’s fleet of A-10 Warthogs, cap pay raises for troops at 1 percent and freeze pay for general officers, and shrink the U.S. Army to pre-World War Two levels will all run up against steep opposition from Members of Congress who have opposed similar changes in the past. The Pentagon’s proposal to cut the Army National Guard, which has a presence in every state and territory, has already incited fierce opposition among those members who intend to fight to ensure the cuts don’t go through. Sen. Patrick Leahy, co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus, argued this week that, “the Senate should not and cannot support a long-term plan that guts our citizen-soldier force.” Leahy was among a bipartisan group of 13 senators that has already written a letter to Hagel raising concerns about the proposed cuts. While few would argue that sequestration is a useful mechanism (it was only put in place as a scare tactic to pressure lawmakers into making some tough choices about federal budget cuts) the Pentagon seems to be sticking to the same scare tactics they’ve used in the past, assuming that eventually they convince Congress to return to full funding levels. So what does all of this mean? As the Pentagon raises the specter of the sequestration bogeyman once again, ideally, they’re hoping to kill the whole idea off once and for all. And given the unhappy alternative, Congress may just choose to go along, paving the way for a larger Pentagon budget in future years.