Members of Congress are in a fevered election-season pitch, the outcome of which could determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. Yet, far away from the campaign trails and home districts, back in Washington, essential work remains to be completed once Congress returns for the lame-duck session. This includes a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which amongst others things, sets national security policy and authorizes funding for specific programs. This year’s NDAA also includes some reforms that could benefit the Pentagon and American taxpayer.
Theoretically, each year, both chambers of Congress pass separate versions of the NDAA and then come together in a formal process called a “conference committee,” during which leaders from the House and Senate meet to resolve differences in their two bills (the Constitution requires that the House and Senate enact identical bills in order for a piece of legislation to become law). Yet, in order to avoid having politically vulnerable Democrats vote on controversial issues right before an election, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has shelved plans to vote on the NDAA until after November 4.
As a result, staffs on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers are already meeting to discuss differences in their respective bills and to try to weed out some of the more controversial items through an informal process called “pre-conferencing.” The eventual goal is to produce a pre-conferenced bill that can quickly be approved by both chambers during the lame-duck session of Congress.
The Project On Government Oversight recently joined a broad coalition of organizations across the political spectrum in sending a letter to members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in support of specific policy provisions—some contained in the House version and others in the Senate. These recommendations would help reform some of the many problems for which POGO has advocated solutions, including reforms that would address the top-heaviness of the military and enhance fiscal accountability.
For several years in a row, the Pentagon has transferred funding from its base budget into an uncapped war funding account (known formally as the Overseas Contingency Operations account) in order to skirt budgetary constraints. Congress has abetted this fiscal irresponsibility by providing more war funding than the Pentagon actually requests. Last year, for example, the Pentagon requested approximately $80 billion to support the war in Afghanistan, but Congress provided an additional $5 billion on top of that amount.
This year, the Pentagon requested around $58 billion for the war in Afghanistan. However, last month, Congress enacted a short-term spending bill that ignored that request, and instead continued spending at last year’s $85-billion level. POGO and its coalition partners strongly recommend that Congress not authorize the war funding account at a level above what the Pentagon requested for Fiscal Year 2015. If the Pentagon needs more money to fund new contingency operations, then it must come to Congress and produce a detailed budget request that accurately outlines how much funding is required.
Since 2001, the military has suffered from high rates of “star creep” a term coined by former POGO analyst Ben Freeman, now at Third Way. Star creep refers to the Pentagon practice of using generals and admirals to fill positions that could be held by lower ranking military personnel. As a result, according to Freeman, since 2001, the number of generals and admirals has increased by eight percent while enlisted personnel fell by two percent.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized this problem and, in 2010, outlined a series of efficiency initiatives that aimed, amongst other things, to reduce the top-heaviness of the military by eliminating a number of three- and four-star positions. Unfortunately, the Pentagon has not followed through on Secretary Gates’ star-creep reforms. POGO and its coalition partners support a provision included in the House-passed NDAA that would implement Secretary Gates’ efficiency initiatives by eliminating 33 general and admiral positions. POGO also supports provisions included in the House-passed bill that would freeze the salaries of generals and admirals.
The A-10 “Warthog”
Independent of its coalition partners, POGO strongly supports provisions included in both the House and the Senate versions of the NDAA that would prevent the Air Force from retiring the A-10 “Warthog” aircraft. POGO has long been concerned by Air Force efforts to undermine and prematurely retire this superb aircraft, which is itself an example of what the Pentagon’s acquisition process should produce more of: an affordable and effective platform. Even though the United States currently has deployed A-10s to fight Islamic militants in the Middle East, the Air Force is still pushing aggressively to have the platform mothballed.
While both chambers’ versions of the NDAA include a provision prohibiting the retirement of the A-10 in FY 2015, POGO supports the stronger language in the Senate bill. The House language only prevents the Air Force from retiring the A-10 airframes but remains silent on the personnel necessary to sustain and maintain the aircraft. The Senate language, on the other hand, includes a more robust prohibition that also prevents the Air Force from making significant changes to manning levels for A-10squadrons.