President Obama’s newest defense budget request for 2014 reminds Washington that these documents are more than a set of numbers. They are also political statements of priorities. But Obama’s budget request is the latest in a series that stands virtually zero chance of enactment as is.
By continuing to ignore the law of the land (and however lousy that may be, that’s what the Budget Control Act is), the President is doing greater damage than is necessary to the military. Last year, Pentagon leaders were directed to not plan for sequestration until it basically took effect. Using equally poor judgment, the Pentagon was allowed to overspend throughout the first half of the fiscal year on the overly optimistic assumption that Congress would provide higher dollars than ultimately transpired and that the Department would get a budget bill enacted (something that was very much in doubt until an omnibus spending measure passed).
These political decisions to let the Pentagon plan and operate outside of realistic bounds set by law seem to help the military in the near-term but are actually exacerbating ongoing damage and making the outlook worse through continued uncertainty. This hurts Pentagon leaders’ ability to best execute budget cuts when they ultimately do trickle down into planning reality and the force. This leads to overreaction, unwise choices and crisis response once the Department of Defense has a real budget.
Poor decisions like not sending an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and cutting tuition assistance for servicemembers are, in part, the result of rosy and ultimately false political calculations regarding the 2013 continuing resolution and sequester outcomes. The President’s 2014 defense budget only continues these trends and accelerates them.
The outlook for a grand bargain this year is as elusive and dubious as previous attempts. That increases the irrelevance of Obama’s 2014 defense budget request. Worse, it may actually hurt the larger fiscal debate once it heats back up this summer with the need for another debt ceiling increase. That is because sequester is still law, and the Obama budget request reflects a 10 percent growth for the Pentagon relative to those reduced levels.
By resetting the baseline, sequestration allows those who would arbitrarily cut the defense budget further to claim it is growing. This flies in the face of senior military leaders’ claims that budget cuts are hurting the force, harming readiness, and potentially hollowing out the security strategy.
Ignoring the law and the difficult decisions that come with it also allows policymakers to get off the hook for the consequences of their votes and choices. Unfortunately, President Obama’s 2014 defense budget is a recipe for continued uncertainty, additional budget cuts, an ultimately reduced strategy, and inability to safely and smartly plan for the long-term.