Furloughs and other temporary budget patches could become a way of life for the Pentagon unless congressional Republicans and the White House reach a long-term budget deal.
Few think a decade of furloughs is the best way to close the budget deficit. Pentagon leaders this week suggested eliminating and prioritizing specific programs would be more efficient.
Lawmakers and the Obama administration aren’t crafting budgets at the lower levels because no one wants to say politically what difficult choices need to be made to reduce defense spending by more than $40 billion annually, budget analysts say.
“It is remarkable that all of the budgets we’re seeing are in denial about the fact that there are these budget caps in effect,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“They’re all assuming that they can come up with some sort of compromise to make the budget caps go away, except it’s been over a year-and-a-half and they haven’t been able to come up with that compromise.”
Without a compromise, more furloughs are expected in the coming years for the Pentagon’s 800,000 civilian workers, who received a measure of good news this week when Defense officials said they’d only get a maximum of 14 days without pay in this fiscal year.
The budgets Congress passed last week didn't ignore the sequester — but Republicans and Democrats averted the mandatory cuts in ways that are unacceptable to the other party.
The House kept defense spending at pre-sequester levels by making spending cuts in other areas, like mandatory programs.
Like the Senate, the president’s budget is expected to include new revenues to avert the sequester cuts. It will include a $100 billion reduction in defense spending over the next decade, Defense News reported last week, down from $500 billion under the current sequester law.
But the administration’s defense cuts don't kick in for five years, and the Senate doesn’t begin lowering defense spending levels until 2015.
There is still hope for a deal that averts sequestration and solves the budget problems.
Some hope a deal that trades entitlement reforms demanded by Republicans for new tax revenues demanded by Obama can be reached, perhaps in connection with an agreement to raise the debt ceiling this summer.
But some argue such a deal could be years away.
“I think all sides are betting that the circumstances that have us sort of blocked-in today will disappear in a couple of years,” said Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives.
The House Armed Services Committee will budget its annual defense bill authorizing Pentagon spending at the higher level set by the House GOP budget, committee aides said. The Senate panel is expected to do the same.
A senior House Armed Services aide defended setting Pentagon budgets at pre-sequester levels, arguing that no one thinks the steep cuts are good policy.
“To do an authorization bill that embraces sequestration forces us to allow the department to take short-term actions that would have a very high cost in the long term — base closures and retiring platforms that you actually need — in order to meet a situation that everybody has a different plan to fix,” the aide said.
But ignoring sequestration in the budget can have unintended consequences, budget analysts say.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Thursday that halfway through the current fiscal year, the Pentagon had already spent 80 percent of its budgeted operations and maintenance funds.
The Pentagon is planning 14 days of furloughs for most of its civilian workforce and has cancelled deployments, training and repairs in order to deal with the shortfalls.
Harrison said that the Pentagon could have softened the blow it now faces had it planned for the shortfall at the start of the fiscal year.
He warned a similar scenario is threatening to unfold again this year.
“That creates a big question mark — is this budget request even relevant for consideration?” Harrison said. “We’re missing the opportunity to mitigate some of the worst effects by cutting the budget this way.”
While the president’s budget request is always a political document in many ways — Republicans will undoubtedly reject the revenue increases — the Pentagon budget typically forms the bedrock of the authorization and appropriations bills that set annual Pentagon spending levels.
Lawrence Korb, a former DOD official and defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said part of the reason no one wants to plan for more defense cuts is the concern that once you detail how you could cut $45 billion from the budget, there will be less political will to stop it.
“The Pentagon did not want to come up with a plan because if they did, people would say: ‘That wasn’t too bad. We can live with that,’” Korb said.
“The only thing is that if you do that and then at the start of the fiscal year the law hasn’t changed — then you’ve got to scramble.”