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Some Senators Look to Spare the Pentagon from Immediate Cuts

This week, the Senate is considering its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes defense spending for the remainder of the fiscal year. Two years ago, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which requires the Pentagon to cull roughly $1 trillion from previously planned spending levels, partly through automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because Congress has so far failed to budget to the lower spending levels required by current law, the Pentagon faces a $20 billion spending reduction this coming January—a so-called “penalty sequester.”

In response, several Republican Senators are drafting an amendment to the NDAA that would lessen the amount of cuts the Pentagon faces this year. The amendment would then spread the spending cuts out over a longer period to give the Pentagon additional time to accommodate the lower spending levels.

According to CQ Roll Call (behind paywall):

Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain of Arizona each spoke at length Monday about an amendment to the bill that would be offered by McCain and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member of the Budget Committee. The provision would seek to reduce the effect of sequester, which currently requires $52 billion to be trimmed off the president’s request for fiscal 2014.

This approach would only provide relief to the Pentagon while allowing deep and dramatic cuts to domestic, non-defense, agencies. It also still does not end arbitrary spending limits.

If Members of Congress are interested in crafting a “grand bargain” package that retains the Budget Control Act’s overall deficit reduction target for the Pentagon, there is no shortage of recommendations with which to work. Last year, the Project On Government Oversight jointly released a list of recommendations with Taxpayers for Common Sense that could, if implemented, save close to $700 billion over the next decade. Other organizations from right to left have made additional suggestions. There is plenty of waste and ineffective spending from which to choose.

While some Senators are focused on undoing sequestration for the Pentagon instead of helping the Department make smart, strategic cuts that will enhance America’s national security posture, the bill before them would actually authorize funding for programs and systems that military leaders neither want nor need. POGO has compiled a list of more than $1.3 billion in funding that the Senate NDAA would authorize for programs the Pentagon has not requested. This includes, for example, an additional DDG-51 destroyer for the Navy. The Senate NDAA would also block modest proposals to reform the Pentagon’s compensation system.

Meanwhile, over on the House side of the Capitol, Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) favors completely negating sequestration for the Pentagon (behind paywall) while increasing the amount of sequester cuts to domestic, non-defense programs. However, this proposal would not comport with current law, which requires the Pentagon and domestic agencies to contribute equally to deficit reduction.

Congress should take this opportunity to help the Pentagon budget to the lower spending levels that Congress agreed to just two years ago. Instead of wringing its hands over how best to protect sacred cows, the Senate should be taking the lead on shaping the Department’s budget in a sustainable, smart, and cost-effective manner.