Military budget: Four ways US lawmakers are blocking Pentagon cost-cutting

The Pentagon is under pressure to cut the military budget but is facing push-back from members of Congress on issues ranging from pay rates and force size to weapons and base closures.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Martin Dempsey (l.) and Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Defense Department proposals relating to military compensation, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 6.

The Pentagon is under considerable pressure to cut spending, but while top defense officials and military analysts are in general agreement about where those cuts should be, Congress often balks. Lawmakers face pressure from lobbyists, after all, to keep expensive weapons programs going, particularly when they bring money and jobs to congressional districts.

As the defense budget comes up for debate on Capitol Hill this week, the House Armed Services Committee has already voted to block many of the cost-saving measures proposed by the Pentagon. While the committee’s proposed bill moves to the House floor for debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up its own version of the defense budget.

White House officials have threatened to veto any legislation that forces the Pentagon to keep allocating funds for costly weapons systems at the expense, they say, of keeping troops well-trained.

Here are the top points of contention between the Pentagon and lawmakers about where to cut the defense budget:

Pay and Benefits

Compensation for US troops has long been considered the third rail of the defense budget, even though the cost per service member has grown significantly – a 60 percent increase, adjusted for inflation, during the war years, says Todd Harrison, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

This is key since personnel costs for both civilians and military troops make up roughly half of all defense spending, according to Pentagon estimates. The House Armed Service Committee rejected one of the Pentagon’s main efforts to cut down on personnel costs, approving a 1.8 percent pay raise for troops, rather than the one percent that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had requested.

The Pentagon also wants troops to kick in five percent towards their housing costs (it currently covers 100 percent of housing expenses). The Armed Service Committee rejected this plan, too, citing veterans groups who have complained.

Size of the force

Secretary Hagel has proposed cutting the size of the Army from a wartime peak of 570,000 personnel to between 440,000 and 450,000 by 2019, but it’s a measure that Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R) of California, chairman of the Armed Service Committee, says he intends to block in the hope that “some miracle happens and we get money.”

This is less than realistic, defense officials note. “We can have a larger force, or we can have a ready force,” said the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington. , “It’s my contention that basically what this committee is doing – being presented with that choice – we’re closing our eyes and plugging our ears and saying, ‘No, no, no. We’re not going to make that choice.” 

Retiring unwanted weapons

The committee’s bill includes weapons systems that the Pentagon did not request, including funding for tanks that Army officials have said they do not want. Lawmakers also added hundreds of millions to overhaul the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, another item the Pentagon did not request.

“The large aircraft carrier may no longer be an effective weapon system for defending US interests overseas as new technologies designed to threaten and destroy surface ships are developed and spread to many countries,” the Congressional Budget Office warned.

The House panel also rejected the Air Force’s efforts to shelve the A-10 Warthog in favor of the next generation F-35 fighter jet. Critics have pointed out that the F-35 is costly and not performing to expectations. If lawmakers’ recommendations are adopted by the full House, it would delay the retirement of the A-10, which lawmakers argue is a stalwart aircraft beloved by troops, for at least a year.

Base closures

While the Pentagon has requested another round of base realignment and closure (BRAC), most lawmakers continue to resist, since bases mean big money for congressional districts. 

Yet the Army has excess infrastructure of nearly 30 percent, US military officials estimate, and previous rounds of BRAC have saved the Defense Department some $12 billion a year, according to a report from the Center for a New American Security. Another BRAC round could save as much as $17 billion over the next decade, “with much greater savings afterwards,” according to the Center’s report.

For this reason, such closures only make sense, says Representative Smith. “Absolutely, another BRAC is necessary,” he said in a discussion this month at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "I understand the politics of BRAC,” he adds, but that said, “The savings we get from a BRAC would be much less cost and much more savings – and we need it to get those savings we are all trying to preserve.”

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