Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
With the Obama administrationís 2015 Pentagon budget request and the new quadrennial defense review both due out by March 4, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will be in the middle of a challenging budget environment. Defense spending is capped at nearly $500 billion over each of the next two years, and the Defense Department still has to cut $70 billion from its budget while the administration wants the Pentagon to retain more people and reverse plans to retire one aircraft carrier. A front-runner to succeed Rep. Buck McKeon as committee chair, Thornberry discussed the upcoming budget season.
Q. The administration is preparing its 2015 budget submission. Thatís going to hold defense spending in line with the budget agreement to about the 2014 level, but the White House is pushing to get an increase. What do you want to see from this upcoming budget?
A. I think the first thing is that we know what the number is, and that is very different than what weíve dealt with for the last few years. So we donít have all the budget drama that weíve had. Tough choices have to be made, but still we know what the total of defense spending will be. It helps government officials to be able to plan. But it also puts a little bit more responsibility on our shoulders to make the tradeoffs when we had a defined amount of money. A speculation about what comes after that in 2016, 2017, 2018, though, I think is not going to count for much.
Q. There are folks who say they did get a little bit more money as a result of the budget deal, but thereís still an enormous amount of cuts that are supposed to come. Are folks up here ready to see the tough choices that the Pentagon might be making?
A. Iím not sure. What we ended up with were flat defense budgets. Of course, the challenges we are facing around the world are not flat. Theyíre growing. And so that means some tough choices have to be made.
Iím not sure that all members of Congress recognize that. As we go through the committee process and out onto the floor, I think itís going to be a little clearer to people. They need to understand the consequences of these flat defense budgets.
Q. Over the past several years, Congress has authorized more funding than the Pentagon has asked for. Is Congress going to abide by its own spending caps this time?
A. Yeah. I think thatís the big difference, because last year, we didnít know how much money would ultimately be spent on defense. This year, we know itís set. So both the authorizers and appropriators know what we have to work with.
Q. For the first time in two years, House Speaker John Boehner has managed to get through Congress a clean debt ceiling increase. After years of gridlock, is this reason to be hopeful about having a more normal few years?
A. I think you need to look for hope wherever you can find it, and maybe this has some hopeful signs. But I think more realistically, the key was the budget agreement. We know how much money weíll spend within the discretionary part of the budget for the next two years. And then this last action puts the debt limit off for about the same amount of time.
Q. One of the things youíve said for a while is that there are still cuts and tough choices to be made. But the administration has restarted the practice of the unfunded priorities list. About $26 billion in programs are said to be on that list. Is that a good idea?
A. Weíre always going to ask, ďWhat was the thing that just missed getting into the presidentís budget? Why did it miss?Ē The Congress of either party will never accept a presidentís budget just as is. We want to make our own evaluations.
I donít know whatís going on with the administration. I think itís possible that they want to generate some demand for more defense spending so that they can increase domestic spending as well. Iíve heard that speculation.
Q. Just about everybody is trying to wring efficiency from the system. Cutting overhead and base closures are a way of doing that. What are some of the things that youíd like to see the Pentagon start doing right away to reduce its overhead?
A. I do think reducing bureaucracy is something that Secretary [Chuck] Hagel agrees with, along with a number of people who have recently served in the Obama Pentagon. Thatís not going to solve our national deficit, but on the other hand, weíve always talked in the military about the tooth-to-tail ratio. The tail has just gotten enormous, and it adds burdens on the people who are on the tooth.
The secretary has made a start on that, and I think that we could well look at additional authorities to enable him to make changes with civilian and military folks, not just at the Pentagon, but in the combatant commands as well.
Q. What sort of authority changes do you think that you guys would be willing to grant them?
A. I donít know what weíd be willing to do. Weíve had several people make some suggestions of early buyouts for some civilian folks, and of some other ways to help shape personnel within the Pentagon.
Again, we want to be fair to people. On the other hand, you canít just keep people on, not only because of the cost of their pay and benefits, but the cost they add to the system. Everybodyís got to justify their existence.
Q. Do you think that thereís more maneuvering room now, given that the budget deficit itself is shrinking? Does that fundamentally make it a little bit easier to get a little bit more trade space, for example, if youíre going to do a personnel buyout?
A. Maybe. The problem is that all of the projections show that while the deficit is going down, if we donít make changes in mandatory spending and entitlement programs, the deficit is going to head right back up. This is something of a momentary respite. ... We have to look at the long-term viability of the overhead in DoD.
Q. Youíre leading a bipartisan 14-month effort to reform acquisition regulations. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon acquisition chief, is doing a similar thing. You guys are interested in dovetailing this so that it becomes a collaborative effort. What are the key elements of reforming the system?
A. What I would like to see is a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but also a simpler system that gives more authority and more accountability to the people who are making the decision.
The thing that I hear more than anything is, ďThis has been tried before. What makes you think youíre going to be successful?Ē And I think that one element that gives us a chance is that ... Kendall and other folks at the Pentagon, as well as people on both sides of the Capitol and both sides of the aisle, agree that we must make this effort.
Q. Do you think that a complete re-engineering is necessary, or can you do this in a line-by-line way?
A. You canít just stop and take a couple of years to re-engineer the whole system. Itís still got to produce as we go. I think thatís the reason that, while itís tempting to say, ďThis is a mess. Weíve got to start from scratch,Ē whatís really better is to go back and look at these things that accumulate over time for good reason, but then just never go away.
Q. There is an idea of pushing greater authority down to the people who are using it, like program managers. When you give greater authority, how do you handle the oversight piece of it?
A. Yeah. I think more often what happens is, if thereís a problem, then some new regulation, some new law, some new oversight office comes into play, which often is an overreaction. And then over time, those build up and again can strain the system.
One of the key parts of our effort is going to be to make sure that we understand the incentives for the program managers. What are they rewarded for? What are they punished for?
Q. Both parties have agreed that military pay and benefits reform is important. Whatís the best way to approach this, which almost everybody recognizes as a strategic issue?
A. Just to emphasize the point, sometime in the 2030s, if current trends continue, 100 percent of the defense budget will be paying benefits. We wonít be able to buy one uniform or one bullet.
I think the best [approach] is to get this commissionís report and look at it comprehensively, so that weíre looking at the total range of pay and benefits. It is always preferable to make any changes prospectively. In other words, donít change the rules on the people who are already in the system.
But the other part is that it may be that a 20-year pinching system is not the best way to recruit and retain people these days.
Q. We are now at $85 billion in wartime supplementals for this year to cover the war in Afghanistan to do the ramp down, as well to cover other global operations. But a large chunk is what most people would argue is base budget. There is a move to shift that over into the base budget. Whatís the best way to do this?
A. People are not paying enough attention to it. A part of the problem is that some programs have moved around between the supplemental budget and the base budget and back and forth, so itís a little bit confusing.
I think we have to move those things into the base budget and we have to increase the defense top line to do that. But thereís not really a good understanding of how much weíve grown to depend on that overseas contingency account. ■
By Vago Muradian in Washington.