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The wishful thinking and outright fiction in the new defense budget

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away

-- Hughes Means, 1899

The wishful thinking continues. The defense budget appeared today. It is another budgetary fiction, alongside past fictitious renderings from the five-sided building. And it will not survive the political process it is about to enter, as we head toward new fiscal cliffs and ideological disagreements over the federal budget.

The federal budget need not have waited the extra 65 days; it is something the administration could have sent up earlier because it ignored the event causing heartburn across the capital: the sequester, or the "little man who wasn't there."

For DOD, this means the request of $526.6 billion is $51 billion over the funds it now has available for this fiscal year.

Of course, the Pentagon and the administration are hoping the sequester dissolves in an outbreak of bipartisan good feeling that leads to a budget agreement sometime this summer. That good feeling has yet to show signs of life, with two budget resolutions in Congress that are miles apart and little incentive for either party to take them to a conference doomed to contention.

So we will have sequestration, probably through the fiscal year, setting a new baseline for DOD. That is not, in itself, a bad thing, but Secretary Hagel's budget ignores it. Instead, his budget assumes that the Army and Marines will stay on the path to the 490,000 and 182,000 troops already projected and the large "back office" can stay in place -- the 560,000 active duty forces who do not deploy, but are the "overhead drag" on defense efficiency.

There are other fictions in the defense request. Pay for these troops will grow one percent, which is lower than likely inflation. Perhaps, just perhaps, the fees retirees pay for healthcare will rise to something like one-tenth of what a non-military family of four pays for health insurance. A new round of base closures and consolidations has been requested. All things will not happen.

Why the fiction? Perhaps it is to punt the ball to Congress, where unreality seems to reign supreme. Let the Republicans increase defense at the cost of domestic spending, and run on that record in the 2014 elections. Make sure nobody can say the Democrats in the White House are soft on defense when those elections come.

But the curtain will have to be pulled from the fiction sometime this year; funding the government will not wait until next year. Once again, the appropriators may have to step in and the find the way to a spending deal nobody else wants to contemplate.

Defense budgets have been, and remain, a hostage to this larger budgetary discord. Rest assured that the man who isn't on the stair will keep reappearing until realism sets in and the few remaining grown-ups in Washington reassure us all that they can set a fiscal path that is clear and sustainable.  Meanwhile, the fantasy in defense-land will continue. Real reform -- a smaller back office, pay and benefits policies that are affordable and sensible, hardware costs that are under control -- will have to wait.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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