In the Nation's Interest

News From SecDef

By Joseph Minarik

You probably saw in the press this week that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a conversation with reporters, said that the Pentagon’s budget will request a smaller military – in terms of troops, bases and weapons systems.  This message, which has come out of the Pentagon more than once and in different forms in recent months, comes much closer to reality than many other budgetary gyrations over the last few years.  It may not be the end of the story, but at least the story is homing in on nonfiction – versus the fiction, or even science fiction, that we have heard before.

A little background, and then some observations:

Many years ago, an old Washington hand told me about a 1970s exchange on the House floor between two young reformers, who were idealistically plotting transparency, or democracy, or some other unnatural act.  Listening nearby was James A. Byrne (D-PA), an establishment old bull, who at some point found that he could no longer contain himself.  “The problem with you, Studds,” he interrupted to the then newly elected Rep. Gerry Studds (D-MA), who was one of the plotters, “is that you think that this place is on the level.”  (If this episode occurred as it was described to me, then it took place in a very narrow time window or through Byrne exercising his floor privileges as an ex-Member, because he lost his bid for re-election in 1972 after a redistricting collision with a Democratic colleague, and Studds was first elected in that year.)

Similarly, most newly elected Presidents think that they are in charge.  Obviously, a President cannot write a law without considerable agreement (these days, beyond a majority) in the Congress.  But a President’s misconception can run deeper.  Now, cynicism can be fun, and I do not want to go too far in the service of levity.  But in reality, a President’s control can end fairly close to the front door of his own executive agencies.

Budgeting is fundamental to Presidential control, and every President believes that his word goes on his annual budget.  And to some degree it does; the President’s Office of Management and Budget tells the Government Printing Office what to print and to deliver to the Congress.  However, the agencies do not necessarily stand foursquare behind the book.  On highly complex matters, they can drag their feet on or shade their interpretations of material to go in the book itself.  And then once the book is released, they can participate in the official, above-ground communications with the Congress, while sending their own back-channel messages to the same legislators about what they really want.  All of the agencies do it, but the Department of Defense is especially good at it, because it has long-standing congressional relationships built around the bases and contractors and sub-contractors that it has virtually everywhere in the United States.  And this is not to indict a Secretary or a high-level political appointee in the Department; but at the career and the uniformed levels, channels of communication can continue unaltered through a change of management and policy in the White House.

So DoD has always been something of a free agent on budget matters, to an extent that likely exceeds that of other agencies.  But that said, in recent years, the signals coming out of DoD have been especially Byzantine, or perhaps even Baroque.

Recall that after the September 11 attacks, the nation engaged in the GWOT (that mellifluous acronym for “Global War on Terror”), which after a while became highly controversial.  As a result, funding for what we now call OCO (for “Overseas Contingency Operations”) was contentious.  The George W. Bush Administration was likely concerned that putting a war funding number in its budget would convey to the adversary a too-transparent measure of our combat intentions.  Therefore, the Administration took the position that if they did not know how much the war was going to cost, they might as well say “zero” in the budget.  The Congress, producing actual appropriations rather than books, did not have that luxury.  But they still got into a lazy rhythm of appropriating at the beginning of the year much less than they knew they would need, and then coming back partway through the year to top up the Department with an “emergency” supplemental appropriation (or “supp”).

DoD quickly learned to play that rhythm like a violin.  They moved routine expenditures from one bill to the other, and then placed controversial items wherever they would skid on the most grease with the least scrutiny.  Yes, we need to support our troops (including the one in my family, full disclosure) at all times, and especially when we put them in harm’s way to protect us.  But we need to recognize the cost, or else we will someday find ourselves unable to fulfill that obligation (and many others).

Maneuvering between regular appropriations bills and supps allowed DoD to avoid the overall budget reality for a while.  Following a “Washington Monument” strategy, where any discussion of cutting the first dollar was countered with horror stories of the most dire consequences, worked for a while, too.  But with this latest conversation, Secretary Hagel appears to be deploying a weapon rarely seen in Washington: the truth.

Here’s the problem, in very basic terms:  Defense spending can be divided conceptually into several categories, including personnel; operations and readiness, including supplies, repairs and training; procurement of new hardware; and R&D.  One way to try to trick the system when your budget must be cut is to accept an unbalanced program – most likely, with too much spending for personnel.  Then you come back partway through the year and say that your personnel are not being given adequate support in terms of training or maintenance of their equipment.  How can their country so let them down?  So you try to shame the Congress and the President into giving you what appeared unaffordable in the routine consideration of the budget.

That approach may have seemed smart for a while.  But the Secretary apparently perceives today that the current pressures on the overall budget are not going away, and so this hide-the-ball game cannot be maintained in the long run.  And so he is presenting the choices that formulating a sustainable military budget inevitably will force.  He is demonstrating that if you want to have the strongest possible defense establishment within what a finite budget allows, you need to cut across all of the functions.  In particular, it makes no sense to have an impressive number of troops, but without rifles and bullets.  So if you are to afford rifles and bullets for all of your troops without increasing the budget’s top line, you need to hire fewer troops.

And you need to make such choices carefully.  Buying national security is like buying life insurance; no number is demonstrably too much.  But it is more complicated than that.  At a realistic level of detail, buying national security is like buying life insurance that is available only by specific cause of death.  Buying some particular weapons systems is like buying life insurance for cancer, while some other weapons systems are like life insurance for being struck by lightning.  The probability of being struck by lightning is much lower; but it is not zero.  So you have to choose your risks as well as deciding your overall scale, and do so on a finite budget.  So the few national security budget junkies talk about “missions,” and emphasize that we cannot possibly attain absolute security – that we must decide which risks we will protect ourselves against, and which not.  (And we must understand that those who wish us ill can observe our choices and then try to hit us through the window that we did not reinforce.  This is part of the reason why they call it “asymmetrical warfare.”  See the Domenici-Rivlin report for one of the rare accessible discussions of why our nation must choose its national security “missions” carefully and selectively.)

It is impossible to know what the military’s budget expectations are now.  Secretary Hagel might hope that, seeing the true consequences of the budget sequester imposed on the already restrictive discretionary spending caps, the Congress will reconsider its overall numbers, rather than proceed to make the optimal choices within those painful limits.  But his intentions really don’t matter.  We could begin to have a serious and mature conversation about where and how our nation is going to deploy its resources, and that is what budgeting is all about.

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