Faced With Pentagon Budget Cuts, Congress Finesses The Numbers

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 6:45 pm

The Pentagon's congressionally-imposed budget cuts ran into a powerful opponent this week: Congress itself. The House Armed Services Committee rejected $5 billion worth of proposed cuts in order to preserve items cherished by individual lawmakers.

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The Pentagon has to cut its budget next year. It'll start spending a lot - about half a trillion dollars still. But that's $30 billion below this year's levels. And it turns out the Pentagon and the Congress have very different ideas about what should be cut. NPR's David Welna reports on a budget battle where parochial interests often prevail.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's not like Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not see this coming. Earlier this week in Chicago, even before a House committee got started re-jiggering the Pentagon's budget, Hagel sounded pessimistic.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: And even as Congress has slashed our overall budget, they have so far proven unwilling to accept necessary reforms to curb growth and compensation costs and eliminate DOD's excess infrastructure and unneeded facilities.

WELNA: Still, the next day, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon promised he would not give in to demands from other lawmakers.

REPRESENTATIVE BUCK MCKEON: They're coming to me to plead save my base, save my armory or my factory or my production line. The numbers have finally come home to roost. I'd like to help them, but I can't.

WELNA: Except he did. The blueprint McKeon presented his committee took more than $5 billion that the Pentagon wanted to cut and put it back in the budget. The committee came up with its own cuts. Crucial readiness funding got the ax, while costly weapons programs were spared or expanded. But there was more. Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine's district is home to 28 AWACS surveillance planes. He was not happy that seven were being cut, along with the Air Force reserve unit that flies them. So he tried saving three of them along with the reserve unit.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM BRIDENSTINE: This is critically important, not for any parochial interest, this is critically important for us to be able to defend the United States of America. The parochial interest here is the United States of America.

WELNA: Bridenstine said the $40 million cost of keeping the planes flying could be offset by cutting funding for the planes' spare parts. Bad idea, said Adam Smith, the panel's top Democrat.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SMITH: I would urge us not to begin this markup by going down that road of saying no to a cut and taking the money out of an area that is necessary to make sure that our troops are trained and properly equipped. So, I would urge a no vote on the amendment.

WELNA: Chairman McKeon then called for a vote.

MCKEON: So many as are in favor will say aye. Aye. Those opposed no.


WELNA: McKeon himself voted aye.

MCKEON: The ayes have it. The amendment is agreed to.

WELNA: And so it went all day long, Pentagon cuts out, different House cuts in. Asked today about the hash the House panel had made of the proposed defense budget, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not mince words.

JOHN KIRBY: The secretary was certainly not pleased by the House Armed Services Committee markup of the budget.

WELNA: Kirby said Secretary Hagel still held out hope that as the budget moves through Congress, lawmakers will put national security ahead of parochial interests. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.