Will DoD's 2014 sequestration plan jolt Congress into action?

Thursday - 7/11/2013, 6:31pm EDT

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.)

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Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put the ball in Congress' court this week when he released details of a defense budget "plan B" — how the Pentagon would manage billions of dollars in cuts if sequestration continues into fiscal 2014 and beyond.

If sequestration continues next year, the Defense Department faces $52 billion in cuts next fiscal year. That could mean targeted reductions-in-force (RIFs) and severe cuts to operations and maintenance accounts, Chuck Hagel wrote in a July 10 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But, there's not yet anything close to a winning strategy in Congress to avert or replace the automatic budget cuts.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the committee, which he is a member of, is a good place to start bipartisan negotiations.

"If we can't find agreement on Armed Services, good luck finding it somewhere else," Kaine told In Depth with Francis Rose. (Federal News Radio's DoD reporter, Jared Serbu, guest-hosted)

But Kaine said the eight-page letter lacked the specificity that might have jumpstarted negotiations.

"I've got to admit, I was looking for more specifics that would shake people out of their slump," he said. "There are some bits of data, there are some bits of evidence in the letter that we can use. But I just need to go to work with my committee colleagues and try to convince them 'Let's let Armed Services be the ice-breaker that will cut through the ice on this thing and create a new dynamic."

Kaine said he's hopeful he and his colleagues can play a constructive role. But in many cases, Congress has actually made it harder for DoD to enact cost-saving measures.

"Part of the solution to the current budgetary impasse will require that Congress become a full partner in ending business-as-usual practices — in areas such as infrastructure, benefits and procurement — that would otherwise require further cuts to readiness, modernization and combat power," Hagel wrote in the letter.

For example, the president's fiscal 2014 budget request called for slowly trimming back military pay raises and raising military retiree health premiums, as well as a further round of base closures and the cancellation of "lower-priority" weapons systems, Hagel pointed out. Congress, however, has balked at all of those suggestions.

Is strategy driving DoD budget decisions?

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was unimpressed by Hagel's letter.

"I would much prefer the secretary of Defense to be coming over here pounding on the desk and saying, 'Wait a minute. It's time for us to go back and start looking at our strategy and saying what dollars it's going to take to meet that strategy and, then, Congress, you've got to come up with these dollars,' (rather) than coming in here and saying, 'Here's all the cuts to national defense,'" Forbes said.

Forbes said, overall, he wants the DoD budget to be driven by a clear strategy. He and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), his colleague on the House committee, have proposed what he calls a "fair share" defense strategy.

Currently, each of the military services — the Army, Air Force and Navy — receive about equal budget allocations. The Forbes and Larsen proposal would instead assign funding based on defense priorities.

"What we're trying to to do is get a strategy," Forbes said. "And when you just arbitrarily pick one-third, one-third, one-third, that's not a strategy — that's budget driving the strategy, instead of the strategy driving the budget."

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