There they go again

You think the Pentagon would learn. But, no, there may even be a payoff in being ill-behaved on your spending: when you get into deep trouble you made for yourself, you just take yourself hostage and threaten to pull the trigger.

Two years ago, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen warned that "the budget has basically doubled in the last decade. And my own experience here is that in doubling, we've lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades."

Seems like the Pentagon didn't get the memo and has been overspending its allowance. According to a Politico piece today from David Rogers, one of the best budget writers in town, DOD decided last September it would just keep spending on operations at the rate they had asked for in the FY 2013 budget request they sent to Congress a year ago.

Some kind of denial must have set in. The continuing resolution funded DOD through March 27 of this year at the FY 2012 rate, which means the 9 percent growth in operations spending the Pentagon wanted was not on the table, not yet.

Apparently, the Pentagon "bet on the come," assuming sequestration would not happen, and has merrily been funding operations (training, exercising, equipment maintenance, fuel purchases, services contracts, and, yes, operations in Afghanistan) as if the FY 2013 budget request were real.

Haven't they been watching? Even if we don't have a sequester, every analyst in town and on Wall Street has been saying the FY 2013 request is the best the Pentagon will do, and cuts are extremely likely, as part of a budget settlement.

Seems a bit irresponsible to spend when you know the money will not be there. Or is this a bizarre form of hostage-taking: if you don't do what I want, I will shoot myself...

Now, of course, we are being treated to round two of the "shoot myself" scenario, with dire, and highly vocal threats that we are headed for a readiness crisis of grand proportions. Readiness, which can be a refuge of scoundrels (especially when they don't define it), is funded largely in those same operations accounts. (See Panetta and Dempsey on the Sunday talk shows.) As I have already noted, this supposed crisis is way overstated, even though managing sequester levels of funding is a challenge.

Overspending your allowance is one way to get there, though. And the continuing resolution set a pretty clear level for the allowance. Overspend, and you run out of money earlier. And have to pull the trigger, especially if you are trying to prevent losing more money through a sequester.

Too cynical? Adm. Mullen was pretty realistic about the Pentagon's management problem. Either they did not hear him, or just willfully decided to ignore him and scream for help when they got into trouble.

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National Security

Why didn’t senators ask Hagel the question that matters?

Putative secretary of defense Chuck Hagel had his baptism-by-fire yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was all theater. One of its most striking features was the absence of almost any serious attention to the challenge he will actually face if he is confirmed: the management of a defense drawdown.

No senator focused on the Pentagon's long-term budget and management challenges. Not one. While a few asked about the looming sequester, the answers were anodyne. Only Sen. McCaskill asked about whether the department needed to have an auditable financial statement by 2017.

There was no discussion of the challenge of getting the costs of weapons procurement under control. Instead, senators from Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia all wanted to be reassured that the defense programs in their states were key to our national security, the top priority of the Pentagon, and protected from budget reductions.

There was no discussion of how to restrain compensation and benefits costs at the Pentagon. There was precious little interest in the programs that deal with the transition of veterans and returning soldiers. Aside from (rightly) honoring Hagel for his service in Vietnam, the people in the military were not a central focus.

And there was virtually no attention at all paid to the critical, long-term management challenge posed by the explosive growth of the Pentagon's "back office." The administrative part of the military bureaucracy has roughly doubled in cost per troop over the past 15 years.

When it came to sequester, the focus was on keeping it from happening, because of the pain it would allegedly cause. The senators have clearly been listening to the campaign being conducted by the service chiefs over the past two weeks, a campaign saying that sequester will cause U.S. military readiness to fall to security-threatening low levels. And, of course, Senator Hagel simply adopted the Panetta rhetoric that sequester would be a "disaster."

But we need to be cautious about this campaign. The service chiefs have been announcing specific, horrific things would happen as a result of a sequester -- docked ships, lowered brigade readiness rates, an end to equipment maintenance. Maybe. But maybe not. The chiefs are suggesting these consequences before they have actually submitted plans for the sequester to the deputy secretary of defense.

Those plans are due today, Feb. 1, but they have no official standing at all. Seems to me the deputy might have something to say about these steps, before the consequences can be announced.

So maybe, even here, we are watching political theater. And the service chiefs are running this show during a transition, while one secretary leaves and another is not yet confirmed. Convenient timing to shape the debate before Hagel arrives? I would be shocked -- shocked! -- to learn there is politics going on in this joint.

It is a pity that the Senate Armed Services Committee decided to avoid the long-term drawdown and the management challenges it actually poses. These are the problems Hagel will really face when he gets to the five-sided building: managing a drawdown safely and intelligently. These are the questions that should have been front and center, instead of the show we saw.

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