Congress expected to finalize defense cuts

Congress is expected today to finalize $5 billion in cuts to the defense budget, so the Defense Authorization Act will fit within limits set by the new budget deal, said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

Details of the cuts could be released as soon as Tuesday. Thornberry said no matter now the cuts are made, they will affect important programs.

“There are real programs, real capability, that has to be cut to reach the $5 billion. Fewer things we can buy, things we’ve got to slow down, so it is into the meat,” Thornberry said during a Nov. 2 speech at the Defense One Summit in Washington.

Thornberry would not go into detail about which programs might be safe and which would be on the chopping block, but did say all programs were being considered.

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Thornberry said there were some adjustments that could be made to ease the amount of money that would be taken from programs of importance.

“Fuel costs continue to be lower than what was expected, so you can reduce the fuel account a little bit. There are a number of programs where they are not able to spend as much money as they thought they would for a variety of reasons, so you can get a little bit of money from those things without really costing capability,” Thornberry said.

Thornberry ruled out the option of making slight cuts across the board and said it was a bad way of operating and there was too much of it in federal budgets. Thornberry said his goal was to make the least damage possible with the cuts, but “there will be pain.”

Feeling the pain, letting Defense do its job

Experts have speculated on what programs would actually feel that pain.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the CDI Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, said in an interview with Federal News Radio that extra programs and material Congress added to the President’s request would be the first to go.

“They are most likely to cut  areas that were unfunded requirements,” she said. “Some places they could look to cut are the 12 additional F-18s that they added, which cost about $1 billion, or the six additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters they added, which is about $846 million.”

Brian Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said DoD may also make cuts to large procurement plans that will be nominally affected by funding cuts.

“They are going to take some of that money out of operations and maintenance because it’s more fungible,” Clark said. “DoD can just reduce the amount of operations and maintenance funding, and DoD would then have to reduce the amount of operations and maintenance they do, and they’ll take some of it out of procurement programs that are large and can absorb a reduction in funding and restructure their schedule a little to accommodate it.”

House and Senate authorizers and appropriators have been trying to get on the same page since the White House and Congress reached a budget deal that raised both the domestic and defense sequestration caps for the next two years.

The agreement allowed for $545 billion in defense base budget spending and another $59 billion in overseas contingency operations spending (OCO). OCO is meant for emergency war funding and is not applicable to sequestration caps.

The total adds up to $607 billion, $5 billion short of the originally approved $612 billion in the defense authorization bill.

Thornberry said he thought the two-year deal was more important than the $5 billion in defense spending. The deal gives more certainty to the Defense Department and military services in their planning.

“That allows us to do our job of building the military. To dig down deeper into those tradeoffs that need to be made,” Thornberry said.

Before the budget deal was agreed to, the defense authorization bill may not have even been passed. The President vetoed the bill because of the way it used OCO to pad defense accounts, while avoiding sequestration and keeping domestic spending stagnant.

Thornberry said the House is still set to vote on overriding that veto on Nov. 5 and the legislative body was in the “ballpark” of enough votes.

Both bodies must have two-thirds of their members vote to override the veto. The Senate passed the bill with more than two-thirds, but the House did not.

Either way, Congress will have to cut $5 billion so it can fit the budget deal.

The President also said he vetoed the bill because OCO was used to pay for base budget items. While some of those items have been moved back to the base budget, Thornberry said there will still be $8 billion in base budget requirements paid for by OCO.

He added that most of those base budget items will be operations and maintenance funds.

“That’s what we did in the conference report, it was pretty much all O&M funding so I’m sure that’s what will be left in that $8 billion of OCO for base requirements,” Thornberry said.