Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. (DoD)
WASHINGTON — With a deadline for avoiding defense spending cuts closing in, there is no effort underway on Capitol Hill to give Pentagon officials the authority to decide what gets trimmed, congressional aides say, despite calls from some quarters to give the Defense Department that authority.
Aides to the leading congressional advocates of allowing Defense Department officials to specify the cuts and avoid the across-the-board chop that would come with sequestration acknowledge their bosses are not pressing House and Senate leaders to ensure the idea at least gets a vote.
Some lawmakers and defense-sector sources said the Pentagon is better suited to guide these cuts, which are slated to span 10 years and take $500 billion from planned defense spending, because military officials could protect high-priority items and sacrifice lower ones.
Under sequestration, federal agencies would have to trim all nonexempt accounts by an equal amount.
Even if a group of pro-military lawmakers attempted to alter existing law to give DoD the ability to dictate what gets cut, it likely would face resistance. What’s more, one senior defense official has said, the Pentagon doesn’t really want it.
“We at least have the power to give you all the flexibility to minimize the damage,” Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said during a Feb. 13 House Armed Services Committee hearing. Minutes later, he asked the panel’s chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., directly if he would agree to move a bill that would provide “flexibility for the Department of Defense so that at least they have the discretion to manage within their means?”
McKeon, one of Capitol Hill’s most fervent anti-defense cuts voices, called it a “good suggestion,” and then called on another lawmaker to speak.
Claude Chafin, a McKeon spokesman, said Feb. 22 that legislation already introduced by McKeon would give the Pentagon “transfer authority,” aiming to ease the pain of the pending cuts. Similar language is included in a Senate bill. But it appears doubtful either of those bills, which would replace some of the defense cuts via federal-worker attrition, will be voted into law.
Despite the inaction, Congress could add legislative relief at any point following sequestration.
But is the Pentagon clamoring for this authority?
“At this point in the fiscal year, it doesn’t matter that much. We have to go everywhere to get that $46 billion at this point,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee the previous day.
“Right now, we have to go everywhere there are dollars to take,” Carter said. “Although I appreciate any unfettering we could get, but it doesn’t help all that much at this point in the year.”
Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, responded to Carter’s claim like this: “It would help a lot. He’s wrong. It would allow the civilians to tell the services, ‘We’re going to consolidate your health establishments.’ … That’s the kind of tough choice-making it would allow the civilians at the Pentagon to actually make.”
Several aides said their bosses support giving DoD sequestration flexibility, but they aren’t leaning on House and Senate leaders to include language in any legislation likely to pass.
Asked if Republican leaders will insist such authority is included in coming fiscal legislation, an aide to Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., replied: “I don’t have anything for you on this.”
“In a bigger political world, if you think the Democrats are going to give the domestic agencies zero flexibility and the military agency total flexibility, you’re dreaming,” Adams said. “How are you going to walk that through the Democratic caucus in the Senate?”
One senior House Democratic aide lightly rejected the notion of giving the Pentagon more authority, saying Democrats still want to replace the defense cuts and a pending amount of equal domestic cuts.
“We are focused on removing [sequestration] and moving forward in a more thoughtful way,” the Democratic aide said. “Sequestration, even if discretion is given to how the cuts are implemented, would only cut the discretionary budget — it would not generate revenue or reduce mandatory spending.”