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Time for Realistic Budgeting

Apr. 14, 2013 - 03:41PM   |  
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No one is happy with the Obama administration’s $3.8 trillion fiscal 2014 budget proposal.

Republicans have decried its tax increases on the wealthy, while Democrats are enraged at its cuts to social programs.

On the surface, the Pentagon and the defense industry should be happy.

The White House is asking $527 billion for the Defense Department next year, not including an impending request for tens of billions of dollars for Afghanistan and other contingency operations.

The base budget request is very close to the projection made last year, but that was before sequestration, which caps the 2014 defense budget at $475 billion, with cuts throughout the rest of the decade. That makes the request submitted to Congress last week — which calls for $52 billion more than the sequestration cap — not only ridiculous, but politically dead on arrival.

Just a few weeks ago, Congress passed and the president signed a law that cut defense by $41 billion through September, supposedly the first bite from defense that over the coming decade would claim $500 billion in military funding.

The administration came back with an unrealistic 2014 budget because 18 months ago, it bet sequestration cuts would never be carried out and for that reason, never planned for them, instead painting nightmare scenarios to scare lawmakers into avoiding cuts entirely. That didn’t happen, obviously, and the White House wants defense — the soft spot in the heart of all budget hawks — as a bargaining chip in negotiating a grand deficit-reduction bargain with lawmakers.

It is possible that Congress will shield defense from further cuts. But in a political landscape where both parties are moving to shield core priorities — Republicans oppose tax hikes and want spending cuts; Democrats want to protect entitlements — more money for defense after a decade of surging spending is unlikely.

after more than a decade of war, Americans want their leaders to bring the troops home, avoid military engagements and dial back defense spending.

So while some in the Pentagon are hoping that they will be spared from making hard choices by receiving a generous infusion of cash, history and prudence demand preparing for the worst.

At National Defense University recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon can’t afford to merely cut funding and people, and instead must reform its organization and processes to retain critical capabilities.

That message, however, needed to be backed by a budget request that was strategic in nature, rather than appearing to be a strategic blunder.

The administration could have used the budget — as it did so effectively last year — to help shape a thoughtful future for the department.

Instead, by submitting an unrealistic request, the administration decided to leave it to Congress to decide not only DoD’s fate, but Obama’s defense legacy.

The president is regarded as thoughtful and responsible on national security, countering perceptions that Democrats are weak on defense.

Instead of building on that record and demonstrating the administration’s good stewardship of defense, it’s sowing uncertainty and exposing itself to accusations of playing politics with national security. Moreover, alarmist claims that further defense cuts will gut military capabilities undermine the deterrent power of American forces in the face of a belligerent North Korea, an Iran that continues its march toward nuclear weapons and a rising and increasingly assertive China.

The best that DoD can now do is negotiate a new top line and subordinate details with Congress. At worst, acquisition programs might be hammered because the Pentagon can’t cut people fast enough, nor afford to zero out training, readiness and maintenance.

DoD is a complex organization in the midst of a drawdown. It and the country would be best served by realistic, honest budgets to make thoughtful cuts to minimize waste and maximize capabilities.

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