WASHINGTON — If members of Congress restrict the Pentagon’s ability to reprogram funds, it will create “significant challenges” for the Department of Defense, including potentially harming efforts to find savings inside the building, according to the department’s No. 2 official.
Speaking Thursday at the Center for a New American Security, David Norquist, the department’s acting deputy secretary of defense, said the brewing fight over the Pentagon’s financial flexibility could also limit the ability to respond to a changing security environment.
“When you look at what the effect of that is on the department, you send a signal inside the department that people’s ability to realize, from low to high priority, from where they see opportunity that would benefit the taxpayer, provide them more security, it makes it harder to move in that direction,” Norquist said.
“Those are the types of trade-offs you want to encourage, those are the kind of things we want to be able to identify. We always have uncertainty we need to respond to, so you sort of lose some of the flexibility to respond to that as well.”
In March, the Pentagon announced it would be shifting money to the border that Congress had previously appropriated for the military, over objections from key lawmakers. Historically, the Pentagon hasn’t carried out reprogramming actions over Congress’ objections, but the administration argues it is legally permitted.
Democrats responded by proposing new limits on the Pentagon’s authority to reprogram money between accounts. The House Appropriations Committee’s $690.2 billion fiscal 2020 Pentagon funding bill would slash the amount of money the military can shift between accounts from $9.5 billion to $1.5 billion.
Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has threatened to “zero out” the Pentagon’s reprogramming authority for FY20. Smith led panel Democrats offering a bill in mid-May that would cap national emergency military construction authority at $250 million per emergency.
While these proposals have yet to pass Congress, they tee up partisan fights in authorization and spending deal talks between the Democrat-led House and GOP-led Senate. Whether the president would threaten to veto any legislation with such limits is an open question.
Norquist in his comments was careful not to blame members for considering the move, saying he didn’t want to “disparage where they are coming from at all” and adding that Congress is considering the potential impacts on the department. But he indicated more discussions should be had about the long-term consequences for the military before legislative action is taken.
“This is something where we need to really understand the consequences of doing it and being able to make sure the essential mission get[s] done, and we send the right signals inside the workforce about making sure that we’re able to put the right funding in the highest-priority areas,” he said.
Previously, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan acknowledged there would be “consequences” for the department moving forward with the reprogramming request despite congressional opposition.
“It’s just a very difficult situation,” Shanahan told Defense News in March. “It’s going to take — we’re going to have to be artful to manage this. I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
Norquist also confirmed that the department still has the goal of a fleet of 355 ships for the Navy, and remains hopeful that Congress will fund its full FY20 national defense budget of $750 billion, and not go to the $733 billion figure sought by House Democrats.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.