WASHINGTON — When * Robert Hale said he never picked his own headlines as was the Defense Department comptroller, he said never got to pick his own headlines, but this is the one he wanted to punctuate in his remarks Wednesday at a think tank here Wednesday. Another might be have been, : "Former DoD Comptroller Puts Budget Chaos in Human Terms."
Hale helmed the Pentagon's finances from 2010 to 2014. , and h His final year, he said, was "nearly constant budget turmoil." Beltway phases like "sequestration," "continuing resolution" and "furlough" in the real world meant worried public servants, millions of taxpayer dollars wasted and sleepless nights for himself — all of which he recalls in a white paper that reads like a memoir.
"Even though I played a lead role in planning and executing and defending furloughs, I did so with considerable personal misgiving," Hale, now a fellow for Booz Allen, said in the paper, presented at the Brookings Institution.
"I knew that I was implementing policies that harmed the morale and, in the case of sequester furloughs, the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of DOD civilian employees who were helping defend our nation. That included my own comptroller staff, most of whom I had to furlough even though I depended heavily on them to help manage the sequester turmoil and to carry out other important financial tasks."
Like any good nightmare, the federal government's budget morass seems like it will repeat itself, according to Hale and the two men with whom he shared the stage: Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia., and Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings national security expert. All three agreed they saw no evidence of a repeat of the 2013 deal named for Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, which eased federal budget caps.
"The sad part is we read your paper, Bob, and we've learned nothing," Beyer said, joking darkly: "To be optimistic."
Though not a major player in federal budgetary matters on the Hill, Beyer represents Virginia's nearest D.C. suburbs, which contain vast numbers of government workers and businesses. Both absorb the hits when Congress cannot settle the budget on time.
Hale said in 2013, he saw sequestration budget cuts take effect — a $37 billion hit that translated into a 30 percent reduction in the Pentagon's operating budget, as well as the 16-day government shutdown caused when the two chambers of Congress failed to agree to a continuing resolution to fund the government. In Hale's tenure, DoD had planned to shut the government down five times. and Congress never passed one on-time budget, funding the government with continuing resolutions — two of them six months long.
All the while, Hale was the public face of furloughs, which he had called in February 2013 "the most distasteful task I've faced in my four years on the job." He said he wrote memos to former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel, calling the chaos, "a colossal waste of time."
"I coordinated furlough activities and I remember walking around the Pentagon and people would wave, some with fewer fingers," he said.
Furloughs and the fervor in Congress to trim the federal government have yielded persistent morale problems among federal workers who are getting the message that they are not valued, which Hale called, "the biggest wound, and one that lingers today." Bad morale, he said, translates into poor productivity.
"Some of the public view them as symbols of a government that is too large, and I would only plead with them and say these are people who are trying to do a job … and part of that job is to support national security," Hale said. "Let's separate them from how big government ought to be, which is a debate we ought to have."
Rather than saving money, government shutdowns waste money. Hale said $400 million was squandered when, during the shutdown, workers were furloughed for four days and told to do no work — only to be paid for those four days in an acknowledgement that they were not at fault.
The uncertainty chills efficient multiyear weapons purchases prevented by unpredictable budgets, Hale said. Missile purchases, small buys of weapons and submarines are all ripe for this type of savings, but it cannot happen in this budget environment. The Defense Department suffers, as does the defense industry.
According to Beyer, Virginia has suffered stagnant economic growth last year, which he attributed to the budget chaos. Large defense firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have endured while midlevel contractors have disappeared, he said, evidenced by high office vacancy rates in the traditional government contractor havens of Arlington and Alexandria.
Hale and company did not want to be too pessimistic. Though it doesn't seem likely Congress will take on the entitlement reform and the broader budget debate that would removes sequestration once and for all, perhaps Congress will take it up under the next presidential administration, he said.
While the president is said to want a deal that increases the defense and nondefense sides of the federal budget equally, Republicans have proffered a budget that raises the defense side through the use of the emergency wartime account, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations budget (OCO), while not raising the nondefense side at all. The Obama administration regards this as a gimmick, and the president is said to have threatened a veto.
O'Hanlon inquired: Couldn't the two parties enter a mathematical compromise? O'Hanlon suggested. Could both sides accept a deal that adds $35 billion to the defense side, which Republicans want, and add half of that amount to the nondefense side?
Hale said he was not prepared to say endorse that idea but felt the two sides should negotiate and find offsets through cutting entitlements and raising fees, as the Murray-Ryan deal had. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had a way of resolving disputes, Hale said, which Hale did he endorsed:
"Put them in a room, give them some pizzas, get people leadership can trust and tell them they have to come up with a deal," he said.