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Interview: US Rep. Mac Thornberry

Vice Chairman, House Armed Services Committee

Feb. 25, 2014 - 04:49PM   |  
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Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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With the Obama administration’s 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. That’s 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 we’ve dealt with for the last few years. So we don’t have all the budget drama that we’ve 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 there’s 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. I’m not sure. What we ended up with were flat defense budgets. Of course, the challenges we are facing around the world are not flat. They’re growing. And so that means some tough choices have to be made.

I’m not sure that all members of Congress recognize that. As we go through the committee process and out onto the floor, I think it’s 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 that’s the big difference, because last year, we didn’t know how much money would ultimately be spent on defense. This year, we know it’s 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 we’ll 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 you’ve 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. We’re always going to ask, “What was the thing that just missed getting into the president’s budget? Why did it miss?” The Congress of either party will never accept a president’s budget just as is. We want to make our own evaluations.

I don’t know what’s going on with the administration. I think it’s possible that they want to generate some demand for more defense spending so that they can increase domestic spending as well. I’ve 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 you’d 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. That’s not going to solve our national deficit, but on the other hand, we’ve 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 don’t know what we’d be willing to do. We’ve 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 can’t just keep people on, not only because of the cost of their pay and benefits, but the cost they add to the system. Everybody’s got to justify their existence.

Q. Do you think that there’s 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 you’re 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 don’t 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. You’re 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, “This has been tried before. What makes you think you’re going to be successful?” 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 can’t just stop and take a couple of years to re-engineer the whole system. It’s still got to produce as we go. I think that’s the reason that, while it’s tempting to say, “This is a mess. We’ve got to start from scratch,” what’s 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 there’s 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. What’s 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 won’t be able to buy one uniform or one bullet.

I think the best [approach] is to get this commission’s report and look at it comprehensively, so that we’re looking at the total range of pay and benefits. It is always preferable to make any changes prospectively. In other words, don’t 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. What’s 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 it’s 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 there’s not really a good understanding of how much we’ve grown to depend on that overseas contingency account. ■

By Vago Muradian in Washington.

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