Government agencies are constantly being told to trim their spending. So, the U.S. Navy thought it would try to save taxpayers some money. Then Congress got in the way.
The Navy had planned this year to decommission four Ticonderoga-class cruisers; 567-foot multi-purpose ships that have often been used as mobile platforms for firing cruise missiles. But some ships in the class are becoming outdated, and rather than spend potentially millions on an overhaul, the Navy chose instead to retire the ships.
The USSCowpens, Vicksburg, Anzio and Port Royal were planned for decommissioning this year. Three others, the Gettysburg, Chosin and Hue City, are proposed for decommissioning next year. The ships, with crews of 30 officers and 300 enlisted sailors, were commissioned in the 1990s, according to Navy records, and are expected to have a 35-year lifespan. Two amphibious ships, the Whidbey Island and Tortuga, have also been listed as proposed retirements in 2014.
The danger of budget cuts led the Navy to propose retiring the ships rather than pay for expensive overhauls. But while the Navy seems willing to face the harsh reality of the nation's fiscal situation, Congress does not.
Worried that retiring the ships might leave gaps in national security, lawmakers put their collective foot down and forced the Navy to keep the ships in service.
For keeping ships on active duty — against the advice of naval leaders — Congress once again wins the Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of fiscal mismanagement in government.
The latest National Defense Authorization Act — which gives the military services their funding — was signed into law by the president on Jan. 2. The language leaves no room for argument about the ships.
"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated by this Actor otherwise made available for fiscal year 2013 for the Department of Defense may be obligated or expended to retire, prepare to retire, inactivate, or place in storage a cruiser or dock landingship," the law says.
The Pentagon has been attempting to make cuts, but lawmakers have been reluctant. Aside from concerns about national security, the military is a large part of the economy in many districts, and members of Congress are loath to take actions that could cost jobs.
The Defense Department requested $613.9 billion for fiscal year 2013 — almost $32 billion less than it received last year. Instead, lawmakers sent the Pentagon roughly $633 billion for 2013, still less than the agency received last year but $20 billion above what Pentagon leaders had requested.
The ship retirements were part of a Navy effort to save $259 billion over the next five years. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said the ships are needed now more than ever as foreign policy focus shifts towards the Pacific.
"We will try to hold back cuts to the Navy's cruiser force, finding the money for our cruisers to undergo proper upgrades, instead of mothballing vital ships needed to sustain the shift to Asia," he said in a March speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Congress was concerned that retiring the ships would be strategically unwise, said Claude Chafin, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee. Plus, keeping the ships in service was lawmakers' own way to try to save money.
"In a fleet that is already far smaller than it ought to be, getting rid of ships that still have 10 years of useful life in them was wasteful," he said.
Despite worries that the ships wouldn't be supported financially, Chafin said that isn't the case.
"That's not how we do business," he said. "We included funds to operate and maintain the ships as well."
Lawmakers are concerned about reducing spending, and making cuts to the Pentagon's budget, Chafin said.
"The department is being cut, and it's being cut substantially," he said. "But you need to make those cuts in an intelligent way, and you need to make them in light of the strategy that the president has charged the military with carrying out."
Lawrence Korb, former assistant defense secretary during the Reagan era, said forcing the Navy to keep paying for the ships isn't a smart idea.
"In the long term, what it really will do is, it's going to hurt the country because it'll keep them from buying new ships that they need, because, again, there's only so much money there, and therefore, they're going to be making trade-offs back this year," said Korb, who now works at the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. "Five or ten years from now, people say 'Gee, why don't we have any new ships?' Well, it's because you kept a lot of those old ones around too long."
Some naval commanders will likely be pleased that more ships will remain in service. But at a cost of millions for overhauling and operating the ships, taxpayers might not.