Hagel to Congress: Stop Monkeying Around With My Budget

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "not pleased" with House lawmakers who this week attempted to undo much of the Pentagon’s efforts to tighten its own budgetary belt by restoring funding that the Pentagon had proposed to cut from programs ranging from the U-2 spy plane to the military’s supermarket system. With the threat of across-the-board ...

Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "not pleased" with House lawmakers who this week attempted to undo much of the Pentagon's efforts to tighten its own budgetary belt by restoring funding that the Pentagon had proposed to cut from programs ranging from the U-2 spy plane to the military's supermarket system.

With the threat of across-the-board cuts known as sequestration looming over its budget choices, Pentagon bean counters and policymakers proposed a $496 billion baseline budget earlier this year that they said would eliminate obsolete programs while providing enough resources to ensure that troops would be trained and equipped to fight if needed. In addition to cuts to the Air Force's famed U-2 spy plane, for example, the budget proposed transferring Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the active-duty Army for a savings of as much as $12 billion, and calling for retiring the Navy's guided-missile cruisers to save about $4 billion over five years. In all, the budget the Pentagon proposed in May was approximately $500 million lower than the fiscal 2014 budget, but Pentagon officials, including Hagel, said it would put the Defense Department on better fiscal footing while also keeping the nation safe.

But Congress has a different idea. In a 12-hour marathon session that ended in the wee hours of Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee restored many of those proposed funding cuts. On Friday, the Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters that Hagel was "not pleased" by the panel's move.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "not pleased" with House lawmakers who this week attempted to undo much of the Pentagon’s efforts to tighten its own budgetary belt by restoring funding that the Pentagon had proposed to cut from programs ranging from the U-2 spy plane to the military’s supermarket system.

With the threat of across-the-board cuts known as sequestration looming over its budget choices, Pentagon bean counters and policymakers proposed a $496 billion baseline budget earlier this year that they said would eliminate obsolete programs while providing enough resources to ensure that troops would be trained and equipped to fight if needed. In addition to cuts to the Air Force’s famed U-2 spy plane, for example, the budget proposed transferring Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the active-duty Army for a savings of as much as $12 billion, and calling for retiring the Navy’s guided-missile cruisers to save about $4 billion over five years. In all, the budget the Pentagon proposed in May was approximately $500 million lower than the fiscal 2014 budget, but Pentagon officials, including Hagel, said it would put the Defense Department on better fiscal footing while also keeping the nation safe.

But Congress has a different idea. In a 12-hour marathon session that ended in the wee hours of Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee restored many of those proposed funding cuts. On Friday, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters that Hagel was "not pleased" by the panel’s move.

"He resolutely stands by the budget that we submitted because it was strategic in tone and because it was tied to a defense strategy that made sense," Kirby said.

Hagel, Kirby added, hoped that lawmakers would "prove capable of seeing the wisdom, again, in the decisions that we’ve made and being willing to make those same tough choices in putting national security first over parochial interests."

The House committee’s markup is just the beginning of what will be a lengthy and potentially contentious push to finalize the Pentagon’s budget. The full House must still vote on the version of the budget approved by the House Armed Services Committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, is working on its own version of the legislation. When that passes the full Senate, a so-called conference committee will be charged with hashing out a compromise version that would then be put to votes in both the Senate and the House.

Some defense analysts were highly critical of the House panel’s first stab at the budget. "I think some of the decisions made by the [House Armed Services Committee], while not a surprise, are terribly short-sighted," Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in an email Friday.

Harrison said the committee’s rejections of the Pentagon’s attempts to reform military compensation, close excess bases, and retire aging weapons systems like the U-2 amounted to Congress effectively "handcuffing the Pentagon" as well as future strategy.

"By putting so many restrictions on what DOD cannot cut or reform, Congress is forcing the military into a state of hollowness because there will not be enough funding for near-term readiness or long-term modernization," he said.

The fiscal 2015 budget Hagel proposed in March — the first budget the defense chief has had the opportunity to really shape since he took the helm of the Pentagon more than a year ago — contained few of the budgetary treats that have characterized wartime budgets over the last decade. Instead, it proposed a number of extremely unpopular reductions.

Under Hagel’s proposals, the Pentagon would have retired the Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Air Force’s U-2 spy planes, and cut the size of the Army by tens of thousands of soldiers. The Defense Department would have also closed some military commissaries, the military’s own supermarket system, in locations that were deemed by the Defense Department as unnecessary.

The symbolic centerpiece of the savings the Pentagon had proposed this year came in the form of retiring all 238 of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthogs, 1970s-era fighters designed for close-air support, in a move estimated to save roughly $4.2 billion over five years.

But Republicans in the House oppose virtually all those cutbacks, which they argue were made solely for financial reasons rather than from strategic decision-making about what the Pentagon will actually need to fight the wars of the future.

"The decisions they’re making aren’t driven by any kind of strategy or threat profile," said a House staffer. "They are all budget-driven."

Rhetoric aside, of course, many lawmakers simply want to protect weapons programs and bases in their own states and districts. Few lawmakers, meanwhile, have been willing to spell out what they would be willing to cut in exchange for restoring the programs they want to save. Pro-defense Republicans may not want to accept it, but cuts are indeed coming. The only question is where.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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