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Column: Budgetary 'Secret Sauce'

Jul. 21, 2014 - 09:25AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Tens of billions of dollars of budgetary wiggle room is baked into the Pentagon's budget each and every year.
Tens of billions of dollars of budgetary wiggle room is baked into the Pentagon's budget each and every year. (AFP)
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Uh oh. No one wants their prized recipe — the very cornerstone of their success or strategy — revealed. But that’s just what some of the Pentagon’s closet congressional allies have done.

Perhaps calling what the House and Senate Appropriations defense subcommittees have done a “reveal” is overstating things a wee bit. So let’s just say that the panels have hidden the Pentagon’s secret budget sauce in plain sight.

The first glimpse into a big reason — despite warnings from Pentagon officials, hawkish lawmakers and industry executives — that the sky never quite falls for the US defense sector came last month. It was buried way down at the bottom of a House Appropriations defense subcommittee summary of its 2015 Pentagon appropriations bill.

“The bill reflects common-sense decisions to save taxpayer dollars where possible in areas that will not affect the safety or success of our troops and missions,” the subcommittee stated. “Some of these savings include: $547 million for favorable foreign currency fluctuations, $592 million for overestimation of civilian personnel costs, and $965 million in savings from rescissions of unused prior-year funding.”

Those funding totals were essentially freed up and used for other things, such as keeping alive weapon systems the Pentagon wanted to retire to cut costs.

The pro-defense subcommittee was nice enough to not total its “savings.”

It comes to $2.1 billion.

But that’s chump change, folks.

The Senate’s Appropriations defense subcommittee will see that $2.1 billion and raise it — by a whopping $9.6 billion.

That’s billion, with a B, in taxpayer-funded wiggle room — despite what many Republicans and Democrats have called a federal budget “crisis.”

“The bill eliminates billions in wasteful, unnecessary and duplicative funding across all branches,” according to a July 15 SACD summary document of its version of the military spending bill. Instead of relying on across-the-board reductions, the bill proposes 517 specific cuts to programs and redirects some of the approximately $11.7 billion in savings to higher priorities.”

Let’s focus just on the words that both subcommittees used to explain how they kept the sky from falling.

Overestimation. Fluctuations. Unused. Unnecessary. Duplicative.

What the appropriators did reveal is just how much budgetary wiggle room is baked into the Pentagon’s budget each and every year. Tens of billions of dollars, in fact.

I asked a former pro-defense Hill aide last week whether, even with sequestration, there’s plenty of money in the defense budget to buy weapon systems — and even develop new ones.

“Absolutely,” the source replied. “It’s just in the wrong places.”

The Pentagon is allowed by the White House and Congress to “overestimate” and use unrealistic figures in building its annual spending plan. This practice artificially inflates the annual topline figure, meaning there’s money baked in to dull sequestration’s impact — and line industry executives’ pockets.

Behold the secret sauce.

The sky may never fall. ■

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