Joint Chiefs welcome House fiscal 2013 budget proposal

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 6:36am EST

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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Members of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff told lawmakers Tuesday that the fiscal 2013 budget package the House intends to take to the floor this week would be a welcome alternative to the conflagration of budget shortfalls that face the government, and would go a considerable distance toward easing the military's budget challenges in the current year.

House lawmakers are planning a Thursday vote on a funding package that would provide 2013 budgets for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments while leaving the rest of the government in continuing resolution mode.

The plan does not check off every box on the Joint Chiefs' wish list, but they told the House Appropriations Committee that it would lift much of the burden they face this year: the potential for a full-year continuing resolution topped off by across-the-board cuts under sequestration.

"It's absolutely critical that we do this," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff. "It mitigates at least one-third of our problem."

The other two-thirds for the Army are sequestration and unexpected costs involved in the war in Afghanistan this year, contributing to a projected shortfall of $18 billion in Army operation and maintenance accounts under current law.

The House budget plan got an even more enthusiastic reception from Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations.

"For us, it's almost night-and-day," he said. "Right now, I'm $8.6 billion out of balance in my operations account. This would eliminate $4.6 billion of that right off the bat. What that means in simple terms is that, right now, we can put one carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group forward, and pretty much not much else in the rest of the world. If we get a bill, we can restore our covenant with the combatant commanders and get almost all that back."

No relief for civilian agencies

Under the measure, DoD and VA would receive full budgets mostly along the lines of what they requested for the year. Across-the-board cuts required by sequestration would be left in place, but military leaders say the automatic spending cuts will be more manageable because the slicing would at least come from accounts that generally match up with the Pentagon's current-year needs, rather than cutting from individual budget lines that are billions of dollars out of whack to begin with.

In the Navy, for example, a full-year CR copied-and-pasted from 2012 would provide several billion dollars more than the service requested for this year for weapons systems and several billion fewer than it needs for its operational accounts, which fund everything from combat training to civilian salaries to military healthcare to maintenance on military barracks.

"It would leave us out of balance," Greenert said.

Raw numbers aside, the military also would be relieved from the prohibition against initiating new contracts that it had already planned for. A ban on "new starts" is an inherent feature of operating under a continuing resolution.

"We'd get two carrier overhauls. We'd get the construction of a new carrier. We'd get new construction for submarines. We'd get all of our military construction. We don't have any of that right now," Greenert said. "All of that comes back, and of course, we'd get facility renovation, which we don't have right now because we've had to put it off to pay for this imbalance."

Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said a bona fide 2013 budget would let his service sign numerous contracts that have been waiting for a budget, including its final planned multi-year purchase of V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft.

"If I had to buy those things one-at-a-time instead of doing a multi-year, it would cost the government an extra billion dollars at the end of the day," he said.

More flexibility for budget planners?

The House bill doesn't cancel sequestration for DoD or any other agency, but it does offer additional mechanisms to soften the blow of the automatic cuts, at least for Defense. Congress would give the Pentagon general authority to reprogram up to $4 billion between any of its accounts and an additional $3.5 billion in "special reprogramming authority" between its military construction accounts.

"It provides flexibility to the military, maybe not as much as they would like," said Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. "But there's flexibility in the plan that we're moving this week."

But with some narrow exceptions, that flexibility would not be available to the rest of the government. Besides DoD and VA, other agencies would continue to operate under both a full-year continuing resolution and sequestration, making the bill unpalatable to the Democratic majority in the Senate.