By THE DEFENSE NEWS STAFF
After 18 months of heated talk, fear and loathing, automatic spending cuts have arrived at the Pentagon with a big yawn, prompting critics to crow that the administration’s warnings of impending doom were overstated.
They also charge that DoD exaggerated the impact and could have found savings through reforms and streamlining, without resorting to slashing operations and maintenance and furloughing civilian workers.
But their gloating may be premature, given the true impact of the cuts will take time to manifest. The fact is sequester required immediate reductions to a tight structure, and without a clear picture of what’s ahead, DoD leaders had few options.
DoD leaders painted nightmare scenarios largely because they were convinced that unless sequestration was averted, they would be stuck with inflexible, deep and lasting cuts that, over time, would hurt military capabilities.
And that now appears to be the case. Neither House nor Senate versions of the new continuing resolution that would fund government operations after March 27 lift sequestration. That means that the $46 billion cut to defense spending over the coming six months will remain in place, at least for the foreseeable future.
In fact, House Republicans now are demanding even deeper government spending cuts — including to defense — to zero America’s $16 trillion national debt over the coming decade.
While it’s true that DoD should have started planning sooner for the cuts, and should have considered deeper reforms as an alternative, such deep and structural change comes slowly because of real and perceived opposition from Congress.
Still, nothing focuses the mind like less money, so cuts will force DoD to make hard choices and reform — but only if it gets the flexibility to do so.
lawmakers demand savings and efficiencies but remain allergic to cutting any funds from their districts, whether trimming programs, closing bases or consolidating operations. Just last week, one congressman chided a service chief for merely mentioning the need to close bases no longer vital to operations.
DoD, as with all branches of government, must be given hard budget targets and leeway to cut — and reform.
The House last week passed its continuing resolution — with a full DoD appropriations bill attached — to keep the government funded after March 27 through September, when the 2013 fiscal year ends. It includes a clause that would allow only the Pentagon the ability to move funds among accounts, permitting smarter cuts, which would be overseen by relevant defense committees and panels.
The Senate has a nearly identical measure, but would allow such “enhanced transfer reprogramming authority” across all government agencies. That discrepancy between the two chambers would have to be resolved in conference, and lawmakers are optimistic that they will reach a deal that will keep the government open after the current continuing resolution expires March 27.
That’s a welcome start, but far more needs to be done. In the months ahead, defense committees and panels must be flexible in allowing the Pentagon to make more thoughtful cuts while encouraging overdue reforms.
They must strike a more equitable balance between their constitutional obligation to oversee national defense and the considerable expenditures that go with it, and effectively stifling meaningful change.
Congress also must end the cycle of prolonged fiscal chaos that not only wastes precious resources but makes it impossible for DoD, its contractors and their communities to plan wisely, while also crushing their morale.