The House Armed Services Committee will grill White House and defense officials Aug. 1 in pursuit of more details on how sequestration could devastate the military, including the potential for cuts in military and civilian personnel.
The hearing is partly an effort to reduce the uncertainty among uniformed and civilian defense workers, contractors and the defense industry by disclosing the timing and size of the across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to begin Jan. 2 unless Congress and the White House reach a budget deal.
In an election year, there is a bit of theater involved as well, as the Republican chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon of California, is prepared to pepper Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and acting White House Budget Director Jeffrey Zients with questions that the two administration officials are unlikely to fully answer.
That would allow McKeon and fellow Republicans to continue to blame the Obama administration for not being fully prepared for the national security implications of the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Under that law, the Defense Department faces a $50 billion to $57 billion cut in the 2013 defense budget. That amounts to a roughly 8 percent reduction if spread across all defense programs or a 12 percent cut if the White House uses flexibility to shield the military personnel budget.
When the Defense Department might start cutting would make a difference, according to senior committee aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It would be slightly less painful to begin cutting right away in January so the reductions were spread over the remaining nine months of the fiscal year than to wait several months before starting to reduce spending, aides said.
Whether military personnel accounts are exempt is also a big issue, aides said.
If personnel programs will be subject to cuts, the armed services committee wants to know the impact — whether involuntary separations or other means will be used, and what kind of advanced notice and planning might be needed to force people out of the ranks, according to letters sent in advance to the Defense Department and White House. Committee members also will want to know if the Defense Department plans to freeze or slow recruiting in anticipation of cuts.
Sequestration rules do not allow for cuts in basic pay or food and housing allowances. The Defense Department also would not change military retired pay calculations or raise Tricare and pharmacy fees without new congressional authority.
But the services could save personnel money in other ways, such as reducing or eliminating incentive bonuses and special pays.
If personnel programs are not cut, the committee is concerned that deeper reductions required in operations and training accounts might hinder efforts to properly train and equip service members. They also will ask about the potential impact on defense civilian workers and on contractor personnel if funds for military personnel are protected from cuts.
McKeon has prepared several questions about contracts and contract workers. With thousands of contracts and orders in play, the panel wants to find out whether contracts will be terminated, reduced or modified, and whether the Defense Department plans to request permission to shift money between programs to keep some fully funded while others are cut even more deeply.
If there are reductions in the number of items purchased, unit prices and parts prices could change, with a likelihood that contractors will ask for adjustments. McKeon has asked Zients to be prepared to talk about this problem at the hearing.