The Obama administration is putting attention-getting Pentagon projects on the chopping block in a bid to pressure Congress into making a deal that avoids $46 billion in military budget cuts March 1, analysts and congressional officials say.
They use terms such as “gold watches,” “hot button” and “Washington Monumenting” to describe the cuts outlined over the past two weeks by the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and National Guard in briefings and hearings.
Analysts and Capitol Hill staffers say there are less-dramatic budget items that could be sacrificed in the first year of a decade of across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration.
But they think the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House want to pick the items that would put the most pressure on lawmakers.
For example, the Navy turned to what perhaps is its most iconic weapon — and one festooned with jobs — when it postponed the Persian Gulf deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. To drive home the point, the Navy also suspended the jobs-generating overhaul of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Underscoring the premise that all politics are local, the Joint Chiefs and other Pentagon leaders have decided to furlough civilian workers across the nation and put local construction projects in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, the Air Force sent to Capitol Hill a map of the U.S. that shows state-by-state the millions of dollars lost to local economies, according to briefing documents obtained by The Washington Times.
“There’s no question in my mind by starting late and ‘Washington Monumenting’ the process, they certainly went after hot-button things,” Gordon Adams, a senior White House budget official during the Clinton administration, told The Times. “As far as I’m concerned, this is all politics.”
Mr. Adams explains “Washington Monumenting” as the Interior Department’s threat in a bygone budget battle to close the most famous icon in the nation’s capital.
Mr. Adams describes the chiefs’ actions as politics because they let it be known what they would have to cut weeks before Feb. 8, the date the briefing was due at the White House.
The stunning cuts also came as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was preparing to relinquish office and his nominated replacement, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, was in a tough confirmation fight with Senate Republicans.
“They decided to go forward with the most horrendous things they could think of due to consequences of the sequester,” Mr. Adams said. “The timing that they chose was as one secretary was leaving and the other secretary was wounded in battle, congressional battle; in other words, perfect time for the chiefs to assert themselves. So, they did.”
Some in Congress share Mr. Adams’ view.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, dashed off a letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, accusing the Pentagon of theatrics.
“I am concerned that these decisions are being made for the purpose of adding drama to the sequestration debate, given the continuation of other programs that are worthy of cost-cuts or even elimination,” the California Republican said.
A staffer on a Senate defense panel told The Times that the Joint Chiefs “are certainly going after the gold watches.”
But the Pentagon is getting the reaction it aimed for.
After the Navy announced it would delay work on the Lincoln, Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, said: “This reduction would significantly impact thousands of skilled shipyard workers, who have labored to develop their skills and will represent a blow to the future capabilities of Newport News to deliver timely and cost-effective ships to the fleet.”
Based in Norfolk, Va., the Lincoln would have its midlife overhaul and refueling carried out in Newport News, Va.
Smarter spending cuts
If shelving carriers and their 5,000-sailor crews does not reverberate across the country, civilian jobs and construction projects do.
To make sure lawmakers understand this, the Air Force sent them briefing papers that show what each state will lose in payroll, modernization and new construction.
For instance, Texas would see 16,000 workers furloughed, losing $127 million in pay. The state also would forgo $27 million in modernization and $18 million in new construction.
Virginia would lose $51 million in payroll and $8 million in facility modernization.
As for alternatives to postponing ship deployments, Mr. Hunter suggests cutting a Navy pet project — its Green Fleet — and stop funding the Army’s $28 billion battlefield intelligence processor, which has flunked operational tests.
Said Mr. Adams: “Why would you announce you are pulling a carrier you intended to deploy instead of, for example, something that has been recommended for years — the consolidation of the health infrastructure for the services, which is also in the operational accounts and would save billions of dollars?”
Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, points to a Feb. 7 report to lawmakers from the Congressional Research Service that lists several options for averting deep operational cuts this year, such as savings from funds for fighting the war in Afghanistan, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops ongoing.
“The chiefs’ gambit is clearly to pry out more money, and they are clearly not in the slightest interested in cutting out the huge amounts of fat and stupid but expensive hardware programs,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Did any chief not come to the hearing in a military limo? Have they forgone their lawn cutters, valets and other hordes of nonessential staff?”
The Congressional Research Service’s report says that, under the current continuing resolution funding the government, the Pentagon budget would dip from $557 billion to $521 billion this year, and war funding would drop from $88 billion to $82 billion if sequestration happens.
The Pentagon says the number is a $46 billion cut from March 1 to Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2013.
Preparing for the inevitable?
One lingering question: Since the Obama administration knew throughout 2012 that automatic budget cuts would hit the following year, why did it prevent the military from planning and discussing options before the November election? The stopped carrier work, for example, affects workers in the swing state of Virginia.
Some Republicans pressed the chiefs during testimony last week on that question.
“It is unfair for me to try and ascribe a motive to someone else,” Rep. Rob Bishop, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Times. “I have no window into their heart.
“What I was trying to illustrate to them, though, is if they were saying these kinds of specifics of what was going to happen, it would have been the subject of probably every campaign — congressional, senatorial and president campaign — and people would be aware of what this actually meant,” the Utah Republican said. “I can only think either these guys are timid, which I doubt, or this was kind some kind of tactic that they had.”
Mr. Bishop said “it didn’t work” as far as he is concerned because of a disconnect. The Joint Chiefs now are saying that sequestration will be a disaster to the military, yet they did not prepare for such a disaster for virtually all of 2012. Planning began in December, only a month before sequestration originally had been scheduled to begin Jan. 1.
“That message is at cross-purposes,” he said.
Still, Mr. Bishop does not fault the Pentagon for offering up emotion-filled budget items, such as aircraft carriers.
“I’m not critical of them for what they put on the table,” he said.
He said previous cuts have taken $1.5 trillion from projected spending over 10 years, requiring the cutting of troops and weapons. The Budget Control Act, which includes sequestration, will take another $487 billion.
“So what’s left for them to go after is significant personnel or salaries, which is 40 percent of what’s left in the budget,” Mr. Bishop said.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, told the committee: “We made a decision in the Department of Defense, which we agreed with, that we would wait on planning, and frankly, that’s because we never thought it would be executed.”