WASHINGTON — As the White House and Congress try one last time for the kind of big fiscal deal that would turn off the sequestration cuts, a top House Democrat says additional defense cuts will happen “under any scenario.”
“I don’t think we can fool ourselves that the overall defense budget is going up,” House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said Thursday.
“Under any scenario, we are not going to be spending as much on defense as was planned two or three years ago,” Smith said during a hearing on the Obama administration’s 2014 military spending request.
Smith criticized hawkish Republican lawmakers for advocating “defense strategies unconstrained by resources.” But, he said bluntly, “that option is off the table.”
Pentagon officials and lawmakers should instead “make ... hard choices, in strategy, in support costs, in shared sacrifices, that allows us to live within our means,” Smith said.
“We in Congress, in conjunction with [defense brass] should be considering how to reduce bureaucracy, how to further reform acquisition processes, and where we can rethink our overseas posture and stop spending on legacy programs that provide little useful capability at high costs,” he said. “We have gotten used to nearly unlimited resources to fight the wars of the last 10 years — but that time is over.”
Smith’s comments came one day after the White House rolled out a 2014 federal budget plan that proposes $526.6 billion in Pentagon spending. It also features an $88 billion placeholder figure for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations; a final war-spending request should hit Capitol Hill in coming months.
The president’s overall federal spending blueprint excludes the $500 billion, 10-year sequestration defense cut that went into effect March 1. Instead, it proposes replacing those cuts with a mix of tax hikes, spending cuts, entitlement program reforms and interest accumulated via past deficit reduction moves.
Smith and other Democrats say the Pentagon and GOP hawks should embrace the president’s plan because it would replace the remaining nine years of sequester — about $460 billion in cuts to planned spending — with about $120 billion in defense cuts.
“The proposed defense spending reductions would be far less painful than what the department would absorb under sequestration,” Smith said. “The president’s budget would allow future Congresses and administrations to determine where the cuts come from and how they would be implemented, rather than deal with indiscriminate cuts through sequestration.”
Panel Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., and other HASC Republicans have long opposed any more cuts to the Pentagon budget, saying that would undermine national security and hurt the defense industrial base.
Smith called that notion “ridiculous” and “dead wrong.”
He and other Democrats see Pentagon spending, which approaches $600 billion annual when war funding is factored in, as rife with inefficiencies and poorly performing programs.
“Anytime you do a 10-year plan, you can find savings,” Smith said, referring to the long-range budget outlines the Defense Department prepares annually.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agreed with Smith that Pentagon funding cuts are “an opportunity” to “streamline” how the military does things, and to better align strategies, missions and budgets.
“There is an opportunity here,” Hagel said. “I wish it had come in another way.”
The secretary cast the budget plan as the Pentagon’s “best effort to balance ways and means.”
Yet, Hagel’s message to the House committee on the 2014 request was somewhat uneven.
At times, he touted the White House’s approach of proposing a sequestration-voiding plan. At others, he was resolute that the sequestration cuts “have to happen” because they are law.
Hagel subtly worked in pitches at several points for some of the budget plan’s most controversial proposals, such as its call for a base closure round in 2015. Lawmakers killed a similar DOD request last year.
Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, shined a light on what will be a white elephant anytime Hagel testifies before the pro-military House Armed Services Committee: The feeling among some in Washington that Obama picked him for the job specifically to slash the military’s budget.
“The [sequestration] cuts you're talking about occurred long before I got here,” Hagel told Thornberry.
Hagel said Obama has not given him an order to, as he put it, “cut the heart out of the Pentagon.”
Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said the military’s heart is unlikely to meet any sharp-edged budget axes.
“Neither party is showing much enthusiasm for cutting defense to the levels required by the  Budget Control Act,” Thompson said, referring to the law that created the sequestration cuts.
“The  House and Senate budget resolutions were well above what the president proposed, even though his own request fails to comply with the law,” Thompson said. The Obama Pentagon plan is $52 billion larger than spending caps put in place by the 2011 law.
Other than Smith’s passionate advocacy of additional Pentagon budget cuts that could help Congress and Obama strike a “grand bargain” fiscal deal, HASC members were uncharacteristically blasé about the defense-spending plan.
“The subdued response to the 2014 defense request reflects the fact that it contains few changes from last year,” Thompson said, “plus doubts about whether it will be enacted given its failure to comply with spending caps in the deficit law.”