Armed Services panels begin ‘awkward’ 2014 budget hearings

“I think it’s awkward,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) when asked about starting the hearings.

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Armed Services aides say the posture hearings — already getting off to a later start than normal — could wait no longer without a potentially problematic delay to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the bill that sets Pentagon policy and spending levels.

The four defense committees, House and Senate Armed Services and the Defense appropriations subpanels, have a stream of budget hearings with everyone from the Defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the program manager of the F-35.

Due to the budget delay, the Armed Services committees have reversed the order of this year’s hearings, opting to begin the hearings with the combatant commanders rather than the service chiefs and Defense secretary.

The combatant commanders, in particular, are focused more on policy issues than the budget itself, making them ideal candidates for a budget-less hearing. The posture hearing is typically the only time the commanders are testifying on Capitol Hill each year.

“We started with those, had confidence we could do the bulk of the oversight we could normally do, and wouldn’t in any way disadvantage [the] remainder of the hearings,” said a senior House committee aide. “Then we’ll wait and see what happens with the budget request and timing of the remaining hearings.”

Hearings for the military service chiefs and secretaries and the Defense secretary, who will be more budget-focused, are expected to testify at the committees beginning in April — provided that the Obama administration’s budget has been submitted.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the administration is working on the budget, but there is no release date yet. Administration officials say the "fiscal-cliff" deal, sequestration and the 2013 continuing spending resolution uncertainty have caused the delay. Many expect the budget to drop in early April, and the Senate panel has already scheduled the service chiefs' hearings starting in the second week of April.

Committee aides said that if the budget comes in April, the House panel — which is typically the first of the four defense committees to move its budget bill — can still move the bill through committee and onto the House floor by around Memorial Day, typically the target date.

But if it’s delayed longer than that, there could be problems getting the bill done on time. The senior aide said there is a scenario where the committee goes forward with the NDAA without a Pentagon budget proposal, based off last year’s five-year budget plans.

“There’s going be a bill this year, just like every other year," the aide said, referencing the NDAA’s streak of passing 51 straight years. “We’re not going to let a delayed budget stop that process.”

The 2014 budget request may not have been discussed at the Thursday hearings, but the current budget problems due to sequestration and the continuing resolution were prime topics.

“The long term…is going to be like an avalanche,” said Pacific Command chief Gen. Samuel Locklear. “It's going to compound. You know, the bad decision we make today just ends up in three or four more down the road because of the way our force is structured.”

The most immediate issue for the military is the 2013 budget, as the House is set to vote on a continuing spending resolution Wednesday that includes a Defense appropriations bill that the Pentagon wants.

“It’s a big deal,” said both Locklear and Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Strategic Command.