Sequester: NDAA’s ‘Elephant In The Room’

(POLITICO 06 JUN 13) … Leigh Munsil and Juana Summers

The House Armed Services Committee spent all day Wednesday marking up next year’s annual defense policy bill, but it didn’t get to the single biggest issue for defense — sequestration — until very early Thursday.

“I am sorry it is 1:30 in the morning before we face the elephant in the room,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, (D-Tenn.), when introducing an amendment that would give the Defense Department more transfer authority to deal with the sequester. “This is the serious question that the committee faces.”

So while the House panel spent hour after hour debating programs like an East Coast missile shield, biofuels and the F-35 Lightning II, lawmakers were operating from the assumption that the Pentagon won’t continue facing the budget caps that Congress imposed when it passed the Budget Control Act in 2011.

“There’s this bizarre situation where they’re going around doing the markup, pretending that the Budget Control Act caps don’t exist,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “So really what they’re doing is not helping the problem. It’s helping feed this idea that someone is going to magically rescue the defense budget.”

Several members of Congress expressed frustration with the state of affairs in the early hours of Thursday morning, but only after the mark-up work had mostly been done.

“There’s a growing awareness that sequestration is a fact of life, so whatever we do here today will wind up being reduced by a significant amount,” said HASC ranking member Adam Smith, (D-Wash.). “At some point over the course of the next six months as we get together and finally do our budget, appropriations bills, one way or another, I think we have to start thinking about that.”

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) also lamented the fact that sequestration seems here to stay, and that the House markup basically ignored it. She echoed Cooper: “The reality is something like the elephant in the room.”

Her Democratic California colleague, Rep. John Garamendi, put some of the blame on Congress: “Basically we have refused to make decisions, the tough decisions about what money was actually available to us, and so we spent.”

Some efforts were made to address the problem: Cooper’s amendment, for example, would have given the Pentagon $20 billion in transfer authority to move money from project to project, up from the $3.5 billion that was included in the bill.

“Let’s not swallow sequestration whole. Let’s not accept a hollow force. America deserves better than that,” Cooper pleaded.

But that amendment was rejected by his colleagues.

Neither Congress nor the administration is doing the work of targeting the underlying problems of the Pentagon budget, Harrison said. And there are no real talks going on about altering the budget caps between the White House and congressional Republican leadership.

“They’re authorizing things that are really irrelevant, because the money’s not going to be there,” Harrison said. “And I’m not trying to put blame on the Armed Services committees, because they don’t have any other guidance to work against. Really, the blame goes to the top level of leadership of the parties.”

And the same thing happened last year — Congress assumed sequester wouldn’t happen, and then passed an unrealistic budget based on a non-sequestered top line.

“It’s a lot of wasted energy unfortunately, because a lot of this stuff won’t ultimately matter if the budget is cut by 10 percent,” Harrison said.

But some aspects of the NDAA markup process do matter. Budget-neutral policy decisions — like on sexual assault, for example — have the potential to last, Harrison said.

So though the markup is essentially operating from false premises from a budget perspective, the House panel isn’t completely wasting its time.

One Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, summed it up this way: “Even if you have no money, there’s relevance in policy.”

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