WASHINGTON ― A congressionally mandated commission on Tuesday took its first shot at convincing the Pentagon and Congress to reform its budget planning process.
The Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform released an interim report detailing 13 improvements that could be implemented now and another 10 suggestions that require additional stakeholder feedback before the final report is due in March.
The Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution, or PPBE, process is the Pentagon’s multiyear system for aligning strategy with funding, which culminates in the president’s annual defense budget request to Congress. In the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill, Congress created a bipartisan commission to review the PPBE process.
“We’re looking at a number of improvements,” Commission Chairman Bob Hale, a former Pentagon comptroller, told reporters at a Defense Writers Group roundtable on Tuesday. “Can we make PPBE better able to foster innovation — because we know how important that is to national security — and to adapt more quickly to changing requirements?”
The recommendations for immediate implementation include:
- Improved Pentagon information sharing with Congress
- Consolidating budget line items
- Bolstering the Pentagon’s budget management workforce
- Modernizing information systems
- Streamlining disparate budget data sets within Pentagon budget offices
The commission is still seeking feedback from the Defense Department and Capitol Hill on its pending recommendations, which include:
- Making congressional appropriations available for two years, instead of one
- More flexibility for the Pentagon to reprogram certain funds
- Allowing new initiatives to begin even when Congress only passes short-term funding bills instead of a full budget
As part of its research, the commission has conducted 560 interviews so far with Pentagon and congressional staffers and compared the Pentagon’s PPBE system with the budget process in other federal agencies. It has also compared the U.S. defense budget process with equivalent systems in China and Russia as well as other allied countries with parliamentary systems.
“We want to make sure that we have stakeholder engagement so that when that final report comes out, it’s not a surprise to anyone and it is actionable,” said commission vice chairwoman Ellen Lord, who previously served as the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. “There are some things in our interim report that can be acted on now. And we think there are many potential recommendations that will begin a dialogue.”
To improve information sharing with Congress, the interim report recommends the Pentagon comptroller provide an annual midyear briefing to lawmakers to coincide with the yearly reprogramming request the Defense Department typically submits on June 30.
It also recommends moving from paper to electronic documents via classified and unclassified “enclaves” that would “include the electronic transmission of budget justification books that makes them searchable, sortable and able to be updated electronically.”
Hale noted Congress receives “an avalanche of information” when the president submits the defense budget request, but that the Pentagon is slower to provide updates later in the year “and sometimes it’s not consistent with information [lawmakers have] gotten before.”
Another recommendation calls on the Pentagon and Congress to collaborate to consolidate budget line items and accounts “where appropriate,” noting the current structure sometimes makes it “difficult for [the Defense Department] to manage defense programs and for Congress to clearly track and understand them.”
Additionally, it recommends standardizing the department’s detailed budget justification books in a common format while creating training courses for the staff who produce them.
The report also recommends improving recruiting and retention in the comptroller’s office while familiarizing them with private sector practices and improving analytic capabilities to reduce personnel workload. This pairs with another possible recommendation, pending feedback, that would call for increased staff levels in the comptroller’s office and the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office, or CAPE.
Another immediate recommendation would modernize and streamline Defense Department information, allowing for better budget analysis. That includes accelerating consolidation of the data sets used by the comptroller’s office and CAPE, which “have historically used separate databases and separate tracking systems,” resulting in duplicative entries in different formats.
Notably, the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill the House narrowly passed 219-210 in July includes a provision that would abolish CAPE and direct the defense secretary to move its functions elsewhere — without specifying exactly where.
“If they just abolished CAPE and didn’t provide those functions, it would be a disaster,” Hale told Defense News. “The commission report says both CAPE and the program budget organization within the comptroller provided strong support to the PPBE. I think the commission agrees with that.”
The commission is also considering some more significant changes to the PBBE process. These possible recommendations are contingent on stakeholder feedback.
Notably, the interim report says the commission “feels strongly that changes should be made” to provide congressional funds beyond a one-year basis.
One potential recommendation suggests a “two-year minimum availability for all appropriations accounts, which would reduce use-it-or-lose it pressure and allow for reprogramming of expiring funds, particularly [operation and maintenance], reducing lost buying power due to expiration and cancellation.”
The report notes other agencies like NASA and the Department of Homeland Security run on two-year appropriations for some accounts and activities.
Other possible recommendations would have the Pentagon streamline its procedures to reprogram funds while allowing reprogramming under certain dollar thresholds for some accounts without advance congressional approval.
Finally, the commission is looking at how to help the Pentagon cope with Congress constantly forcing it to operate on short-term funding bills past the end of the fiscal year, which inhibit the Defense Department’s ability to launch new initiatives.
Hale said one potential recommendation “would be to allow new starts under a [continuing resolution] but with the provisio that all four defense committees had acted on the budget, passed a bill and none of them had prohibited that new start.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.