Congress facing reality of defense cuts

Lawmakers are coming to grips with a 2015 proposed defense budget that would cut the Army down to 420,000 active duty soldiers and cut the number of aircraft carriers down to 10.

If defense budget cuts under sequestration are reversed, and the Pentagon is allowed to spend $115 billion above current budget caps, it could keep the active duty Army end strength at between 440,000 to 450,000 levels and keep 11 aircraft carriers. 

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However, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified on the budget request, lawmakers admitted overturning sequestration is not likely. 

“I don't see any way that it's going away right now,” said HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

“That's not going to happen ... So, we've got the number we've got,” echoed ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

The Pentagon released its 2015 budget request on Tuesday, which contains a number of proposals unpopular to members of Congress, particularly cutting Army active duty end strength by 90,000 and cutting the National Guard end strength by 39,000 by 2019, retiring an aircraft carrier and the entire A-10 and U-2 fleets.  

The budget request also includes unpopular changes to military pay and benefits including capping raises, increasing health care fees, increasing commissary prices, and reducing housing allowances. 

Since the budget is $115 billion above sequestration caps over a five year period through 2019, if lawmakers do not overturn sequestration, defense officials say more aircraft and ships would be cut, among other things, and forces will be less ready to take on missions.

The 2015 $496 billion defense budget request is nominally flat from the two years prior, but represents a decline in real terms. The 2016 defense budget is due to shrink further. Although the defense budget was set to decline after a wartime peak in 2010, at about $487 billion over 10 years, sequestration cuts nearly doubled that amount. 

Sequestration came as a part of a mechanism in the 2011 Budget Control Act that kicked in when lawmakers failed to agree on tax and spending reform. 

On Wednesday, lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee pushed back against the proposals and lamented sequestration but similarly showed no optimism on reversing it. 

McKeon said the only way sequestration would be overturned would be if the American people lobbied their lawmakers for additional defense spending. 

“If we're going to be able to change sequestration, I think the American people are going to have to [get upset],” he said. 

But Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) placed the burden squarely on his fellow lawmakers.  

“We could have a larger budget if we had the courage to vote for it. We could find savings in other places. We could have additional revenues, but that's what's lacking, is congressional courage,” he said. 

“So, let's not blame the witnesses [Hagel and Dempsey]. They're doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances,” he said.  

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