Experts: House panel’s defense authorization bill an illusion

The House Armed Services Committee planted the first flag in the 2012 defense budget debate last week, but Pentagon observers say there is little chance any other military spending bill will approach the size of its plan.

The panel approved a 2012 defense authorization bill with a baseline spending level of $553 billion early Thursday morning, matching the Obama administration’s request.

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The bill fully funds the administration’s requests for major hardware programs and contains a provision aimed at keeping alive a second engine for the F-35 fighter fleet.

The panel’s bill also seeks to slow the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay members, and places some — though thin — restrictions on implementation of a nuclear arms pact with Russia.

Just several weeks back, congressional leaders and the White House agreed to a compromise $531 billion defense bill for fiscal 2011. That figure was reached by stripping $18 billion from the Pentagon’s $549 billion 2011 spending request.

Since then, even senior defense hawks in the House — including Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) — have said in interviews that additional cuts will be made in 2012 as Washington sets its sights on deficit-reduction efforts.

What’s more, President Obama has set a marker of reducing defense spending by $400 billion through 2023. 

But none of that stopped McKeon from writing a bill that proposes swelling the Pentagon budget by $22 billion from 2011 to 2012.

Former defense officials and Pentagon observers called McKeon’s spending plan an optical illusion that Senate authorizers  — and defense appropriators in both chambers — likely will ignore until it’s time to negotiate a final version in coming months.

For McKeon and his House GOP hawks, the defense authorization bill was a chance to make their case — to others in Washington and their constituents — that the military has a long list of hardware needs in a dangerous world. To this faction, annual Pentagon budgets should be swelling amid a laundry list of potential threats, not shrinking.

“The HASC bill is clearly a high-water mark that’s going to fall fast when the other defense committees do their work,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw Defense budgeting for the Clinton administration’s Office of Management and Budget.

Adams predicted another round of cuts from House and Senate appropriators similar to the $18 billion enacted for this fiscal year, but noted big-ticket hardware programs likely are safe from termination.

“The real fight isn’t going to be between the two chambers over their draft versions of the [defense authorization bill], but rather between the authorizers and appropriators,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate staffer now with the Heritage Foundation. “The House Appropriations Committee has just floated a $9 billion whack to the DoD top line that McKeon has worked furiously to protect.”

That coming debate will likely have ramifications for years to come, she predicted.

“How much Congress ultimately cuts from the president’s budget request for defense in FY12 will set the stage for the coming grand bargain to increase the debt ceiling that will likely use Obama’s goal of $400 billion as a floor,” Eaglen said. 

The compromise 2011 bill did trim some program funding lines, such as halving the administration’s F-35 funding request. Analysts said those are the kind of moves to expect in 2012.

Lawmakers also will be tempted to alter the Pentagon’s production schedules for new combat systems and make other moves to free up monies they can call cuts for 2012. 

Expect those kinds of funding reductions for programs in 2012, Adams said, quipping, “because the one thing you can count on Congress to do is not kill weapons programs.”

Another defense analyst agreed the House panel’s proposed $553 billion likely is dead on arrival.
“The HASC mark probably sets a high point for possible military funding in the current budget cycle, since House authorizers traditionally have been more supportive of orphaned weapons systems than other congressional committees,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute and an industry consultant.

One example is the second F-35 engine program, which two administrations have wanted to terminate for several years, only to see Congress keep it alive.
The House committee adopted a provision that would trigger a competition to build the F-35 fighter engine if certain improvements are made to the primary power plant. It remains doubtful that the remaining three defense committees will follow suit.
The House panel also approved a provision that would add $100 million to the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program (GMD), for which the Obama administration sought $1.2 billion in its 2012 defense spending request.

The proposed plus-up could have a tough time gaining traction among budget hawks in the House and in the Democratic-controlled Senate, analysts said.

The matter divided the House Armed Services Committee, with every Democratic member signaling their opposition.

Republican panel members, such as Strategic Forces subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said during the committee’s markup of the authorization bill that the $100 million addition was needed to make up ground lost from budget cuts in previous years. 

Democrats, like Strategic Forces subcommittee ranking member Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), said senior Pentagon officials have indicated privately that the program office says it likely will have a tough time spending the $1.2 billion in the administration’s request, if that is approved.