Budget experts blame lawmaker 'disengagement' as source of DoD turmoil

Thursday - 11/7/2013, 5:51am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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Several longtime veterans of the Defense budgeting process on Capitol Hill say the source of DoD's current budget turmoil isn't just the vast ideological divide between the two major political parties — it's a general disengagement among members of Congress from the usual, well-worn process of passing budgets and legislation.

Four veteran staffers of the Congressional Defense appropriations committees and armed services committees say yes, the current Congress is dysfunctional. Yes, the collection of parliamentary procedures known as "regular order" has broken down among partisan bickering.

But there are more fundamental underpinnings beneath those problems. Individual lawmakers no longer feel bound to the legislative processes that, in years past, generally made the Congress a legislative body that got its work done.

Jim Dyer, a former House Appropriations Committee staff director who is now a principal at the Podesta group, singles out the current ban on earmarks as one major underlying culprit.

"I never understood why the Congress would walk away from directing spending, whether it's in their district, another district or another part of the world," he said at a forum of former senior congressional staff members organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "To me, it's a fundamental constitutional obligation that empowers them. When this absolutely arbitrary, pointless earmark ban was put in place, it sent a signal that we're going to turn over all of our power over specific decision making to the executive branch."

The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a famous earmarker, convinced Dyer, a Republican, that congressionally-directed spending is not a sin.

"'He told me, 'Jimmy, you can't make a good roast on Sunday afternoon without a lot of fat on the outside.' He was right," Dyer said. "There's got to be some incentive to build consensus around legislation. Today, you don't have any of that. It's all sticks and no carrots."

All sticks, no carrots

And sticks such as sequestration, which no member of Congress particularly wanted to happen when it was still an impending threat, could never gain a critical mass of lawmakers who had enough incentive to fight for an alternative approach. This could have included something such as raising revenue or modifying mandatory spending programs such as Medicare.

Dyer said it was the ultimate manifestation of members of Congress walking away from their responsibilities.

"This is the anti-appropriations act," he said. "This is the bill that basically says, 'Never mind the appropriators, never mind oversight, never mind what works. Just cut it all. Just cut it all and then we'll feel good about cutting spending. We're in year two of this, and I can't find anybody that feels good as long as we're living with this monstrosity."

Steve Cortese, a vice president at DRS technologies and a former staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee, was similarly critical of the earmark ban. But when it comes to individual lawmakers' lack of personal stake in the annual bills that make DoD run, he said there's also a striking lack of a crystal- clear consensus about the military's current role in the world, unlike during the Cold War or the anti-terrorism wars of the last decade.

"There has to be a reason for members to feel connected and engaged with the bills," he said. "A new consensus coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan is going to be essential to how the Congress accepts and discharges their responsibilities as it relates to defense spending."

But Cortese said he sees an opportunity for a new crop of leaders on the Defense authorization and appropriations committees to begin to construct a new framework around how Congress should apportion funding for national defense. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense will have a new chairman soon following last month's passing of 82-year-old Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Its Senate counterpart has a new chairman as of this year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). And the Senate Armed Services Committee will have a new leader after the current chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), retires at the end of 2014.

"And in the absence of the dreaded word 'earmarks,' we've had a period where members' engagement and sense of commitment to the bills has been harder to track and understand," Cortese said. "There's going to be a new group that's come to these leadership positions in this different period, and they're going to help create, or not, an architecture for how Defense spending is going to be prioritized over this next decade."

DoD shares some responsibility

Charles Houy, who left the Hill this year after three decades of service — mostly on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee — said for all of Congress' faults in forcing DoD to guess about what its financial future will be, the Pentagon itself has a role to play as well. It must make sure critical programs stay on track, and that it manages its programs in a way that reflect the amount of money those programs will actually receive from Congress, rather than the amount their program managers would like to have.