Obama's Useless Budget Data...and Improbable Budget Strategy

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

Budgets are important documents: they are the ultimate expression of policy by a President or Congress.

Budgets are also a useful revelation of the character and competence of those who put them together.

President Obama's budget presentation for the Department of Defense and national security-related activities outside of the Defense Department is useless for understanding what he and Congress have enacted for the current 2013 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The budget material for 2014 also shows there is no new thinking in the Obama Administration for putting U.S. national security spending on a constructive path. Given the dysfunctional Congress that's getting the new budget, we should expect the worst: delay, chaos and decisions to increase, not control, costs.

Thanks to lawmakers' six-month delay in enacting the 2013 defense budget, the Obama Administration took an extra two months-beyond the usual early February deadline-to put together the new Pentagon budget. And yet, the budget displays the Office of Management and Budget released April 10 did not accurately show what Congress passed and President Obama signed into law on March 26.

The 2013 numbers OMB released for the Defense Department, for example, were off by $42.8 billion, and the numbers for other national security-related agencies, such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, were off by billions of dollars as well.

As OMB and Pentagon officials privately explained, it wasn't that there was too little time to publish the accurate numbers. It was that no one in the Obama Administration wanted to acknowledge what the numbers really were, because that might mean that they might not be changed to something higher.

Ignoring the sequestration of $42.8 billion specifically enacted by Public Law 113-006 in March, OMB's budget display did not show what the numbers actually are.

It showed instead what OMB and DOD wish them to be.

That's an interesting approach for a budget that has already been set in concrete by law for a fiscal year that is more than half over.

The strategy seems to be: ignore reality, hope for the best.

Surely all those statesmen and -women in Congress will fix it.

It doesn't get any better for the new 2014 budget request. It too ignores the statutory requirement for a sequester of $52 billion, but that's okay; the new request is prospective, and they are seeking a future modification. It's other portions that ignore reality.

To save money, the new defense budget seeks a congressional green light to close surplus bases-of which there are many. Last year, Congress summarily rejected this idea. It was an election year, and no one on Capitol Hill wanted to be found failing to protect pork.

This year is not an election year, but already members of Congress are saying this request for a Base Re-Alignment and Closure (BRAC) is dead on arrival. In the new age politics, every year is an election year, and nothing in the new request for a BRAC gives anyone on Capitol Hill a good reason to think differently. Nothing has been done to divert Congress from its now-perpetual resistance to base closures.

The same is true for a different DOD budget item. For the umpteenth time in a row, DOD is seeking to reduce costs for its extraordinarily expensive (and growing) Defense Health Plan (DHP). Again, protecting itself from a powerful constituency that lobbies hard to keep DHP benefits (and costs) high, Congress has always said no. Again, the renewed request for cost cutting is accompanied by nothing to make Congress think and act any differently from the past.

Notwithstanding the two-month delay in the 2014 DOD budget request, the Obama Administration could not sort out how much the war in Afghanistan will cost in 2014. Although we have been there since 2001 and are now planning to (mostly) leave, the Pentagon has not figured out the transportation costs for pulling out equipment and troops, and the White House has not imposed any closure on the number of U.S. forces to be there in 2014.

Instead, OMB and DOD put a "placeholder" number of $88.5 billion in the DOD budget for 2014 for Afghanistan, explaining that they will supply a real number "in several weeks."

Given the dimension of the known troop reductions, that "placeholder" amount of $88.5 billion could be off by tens, if not scores, of billions of dollars: it probably depends on how many spending-enhancing gimmicks they decide to add to the real costs as well.

Not to worry, however, the 2014 budget envisions lots of savings, up to $150 billion. Except that only $16 billion of that is scheduled to occur while Barack Obama is president; the rest won't happen-if it actually does-until the "out-years" after 2016. Those out-years are elusive in DOD budgets; actually, they never occur as planned.

It is predictable for DOD and OMB to want to avert the sequester in 2014 that current law requires. However, as we now know from the experience of the 2013 budget, the sequester may still happen because Congress won't act. Unfortunately, neither OMB nor DOD has a back-up plan-which they also lacked for 2013.

Instead, the plan seems to be much the same as for BRAC, healthcare costs, future savings, and the sequester back in 2013: say what you want and hope someone is listening and will act.

They aren't; they won't.

As they say, hope is not a strategy, but there are also other problems.

Riddled with glitches already, both the 2013 and 2014 defense budgets have numerous other deficiencies, hidden pockets of money, and uncounted billions.

There is DOD money that DOD does not advertise in its budget request, but at least OMB identifies it.

There is also DOD money that neither DOD nor OMB identify as in the DOD budget.

And, there is still more money in other agencies that is very much defense-related, but not counted by DOD or the press as part of what they call the "defense" budget. If you count all of these DOD and defense-related funds, the total "defense" or "national security" budget request for 2014 comes to $968 billion-just shy of $1 trillion. That works out to about $2.7 billion a day - more than $100 million an hour - for the national defense, 24/7/365. Find a tabulation of all these costs here.

This tabulation of all DOD and defense-related spending for both 2013 and 2014, with and without the impact of sequestration, is not apparently the kind of thing that either DOD or OMB wants the public to know. It shows where DOD hides money; it shows additional money that is integral to U.S. national security, and it shows where all this spending is likely to end up, as it already has for 2013, and where it very likely could in 2014.

It also shows what Plan B for the complete defense budget might look like, but Obama apparently has no Plan B-not for 2014 and not for 2013.

Read more here at Time's Battleland Blog.