Bringing Some Sense to the Defense Budget

Across-the-board reductions are a nonsensical way to reduce the defense budget.

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he has “moved assets in place”  for “whatever option the president wishes to take” regarding Syria.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he has “moved assets in place” for “whatever option the president wishes to take” regarding Syria.

Reps. Bill Young, R-Fla., and Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, recently sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter about an ongoing review of the organization of the DoD workforce. It is common for members of Congress to address their concerns to the secretary of defense. An entire office of the Pentagon, headed by an assistant secretary, exists just to deal with these missives.

And today's fiscal realities – the implementation of the sequester created by the Budget Control Act, the challenges of getting appropriations bills passed and the budget-crisis-to-budget-crisis method of fiscal management – almost demand that appropriators make sure the Pentagon knows their views. 

What's unusual about this letter, on an issue most anyone would consider as dry as yesterday's toast, is the new thinking about how to implement a 20 percent reduction to the Office of the Secretary of Defense staff: "We recommend that the Review consider recommendations to eliminate certain functions and certain contracts entirely, rather than across the board cuts to all functions."

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Additionally, Young and Visclosky state: "We believe that the total workforce should be considered, to include the size and cost of contractor workforce … The Department's budget materials do not make clear the number and cost of contractor employees who are included in the management headquarters workforce."

Typically, the Pentagon implements cuts like this by what they call the "haircut" method. Everybody gets a trim. Every function takes the same percentage hit. "Share the pain." This reduces, but never completely eliminates, the unseen struggles that the various functions engage in to minimize the cut to their particular office.

The same thing happens, on a larger scale, when a topline cut is proposed to DoD budgets. The military services immediately engage in internal warfare to protect their interests and programs. To short circuit these time consuming battles, and perhaps to avoid making the harder decisions, the political leadership typically settles on the "haircut" approach.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

This method harkens back to the cuts proposed under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act in the mid-1980s. Under Graham-Rudman-Hollings, when certain deficit reduction targets were not met, virtually all federal programs took a equal percentage cut under the newly created sequester provisions of the law. (They even came up with the term sequestration.) The Budget Control Act of 2011 used sequestration to force program-by-program across the board cuts for the remainder of Fiscal 2013. And if the spending caps between 2014 and 2021 are exceeded, sequestration will be there to cut funding back down to size. 

Taking a "haircut" approach to cutting Pentagon spending is yesterday's idea. It cuts muscle and fat, the critical and wasteful the same. It avoids making the hard decisions to actually end ineffective programs.  It's great that Young and Visclosky are advocating for making the harder and more thoughtful choices that will lead to long term improvements and savings. We need more leadership like that from Congress.  Cutting entire workforce functions has the added benefit of permanency – as long as continued congressional oversight keeps those functions from creeping back.

A hard look at what functions contractor personnel are performing for DoD and how much we pay for that is also long overdue.  We hope the defense appropriations subcommittee will continue to push for smarter decision making and follow it up with consistent oversight to make sure our tax dollars are being to put to their best use.  Because it is important to remember that in the big scheme of things this is small ball budgeteering. It's not just OSD where there needs to be more thoughtful, responsible spending cuts. There's room throughout the Pentagon budget and in other areas of government.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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