Pentagon kept lawmakers in dark on proposed cuts

Congressional defense leaders largely were kept in the dark as Pentagon officials compiled a list of cost-cutting proposals unveiled last Thursday.

“Members were not pre-warned,” said one senior House aide. “Most walked in to the meeting last Thursday and were shocked.”

Lawmakers were upset to hear the White House was proposing $78 billion in cuts to the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan, and were especially irked to hear the Pentagon’s proposed termination of one big-ticket weapons program, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), and significant changes to another, the F-35 fighter, aides said.

What’s more, Pentagon officials provided congressional defense committee leaders and aides no prior notification of plans to trim the size of the Army and Marine Corps, aides said.

DoD leaders said those reductions, which would begin in 2015, are needed to hit future budget targets.

“We had heard some rumors, but all we knew going in was what the Pentagon had already released,” the senior House aide said.

Another congressional aide said the morning session was “brief,” adding that Pentagon leaders provided only “notification of decisions made.”

DoD leaders briefed the so-called “big eight” — the top Democrats and Republicans on the Armed Services committees and Defense appropriations subcommittees — only a few hours before Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen publicly unveiled the cost-cutting package during a Jan. 6 press briefing.

Gates told reporters that lawmakers were provided with an “overwhelming” amount of information.

He also said lawmakers and aides asked “a number of questions but [provided] very little editorial comment,” the secretary added.

That is expected to change tomorrow, when DoD officials are scheduled to meet with congressional defense aides about the budget-trimming proposals.

Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale and Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop, are slated to lead the briefing. The Defense Department delegation will meet only with aides; a briefing with lawmakers was pushed back at least one week as Congress to reflect on the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

“DoD offered the briefings in order to provide members’ staff the opportunity to ask questions about specific aspects of the secretary's announcement,” a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

Along with the Marine vehicle and F-35 decisions, the secretary also announced a long list of other cost-cutting moves, including shrinking staffs, eliminating the Navy’s Second Fleet, and consolidating military organizations.

The moves are part of several related initiatives launched last year by Gates in an effort to save $100 billion over five years and shift those funds to combat hardware initiatives.

The effort was more successful than even Gates had hoped, unearthing nearly $150 billion. The Army found $29 billion, while the Air Force located $34 billion.

Collectively, the Navy and Marine Corps produced $35 billion in savings over the next five years. U.S. Special Operations Command found about $2 billion.

The military services will direct most of those savings toward new combat platforms, such as a new nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, more F/A-18E/F fighters, additional Littoral Combat Ships, more unmanned aircraft, and upgrades for several classes of ground vehicles, Pentagon officials said.

Lawmakers and aides learned during the morning meeting for the first time about a White House-directed defense spending cut. If enacted, it would be spread across fiscal years 2012-2016.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and other panel members received no prior official word of the $78 billion cut, according to his spokesman, Josh Holly.

“Mr. McKeon was very surprised by the $78 billion cut, and that cuts went deeper than the $100 billion of the efficiencies effort,” Holly said.

His frustration was captured in a statement released before Gates’s press briefing had even ended.

“I'm not happy. We went into today's meeting trying to ensure the $100 billion in targeted savings were reinvested back into our national security priorities,” McKeon said. “We didn't expect to hear that before these efficiencies can be realized, the White House and [the Office of Management and Budget] have demanded that the Pentagon cut an additional $78 billion from defense over the next five years.”

Gordon Adams, who oversaw defense budgeting at OMB for the Clinton administration, said it is common for national security leaders — fearing leaks and backlash — to take spending and program decisions to Congress “before they are absolutely ready.”

Just how Congress will respond to Gates’s cost-cutting moves and the OMB-directed funding reduction remains unclear. The DoD spending plans are further complicated by the nation’s bleak fiscal situation.

Pro-defense lawmakers like McKeon want to swell defense spending. But many Democrats and some Republican leaders say Pentagon spending must be on the table as Washington mulls debt-reduction options.

“It seems the Hill is still trying to grapple with all of this,” Adams said.