Analysis: Tough talk on US defense budget creates uncertainty

The White House and Pentagon are fighting to limit weapons spending in the 2010 defense budget but they face a wily opponent — Congress.
More uncertainty surrounds the Pentagon’s annual budget request than in recent years because the Obama administration is determined to stop senior lawmakers from adding “earmarks,” or extra money to fund pet projects in their home states.
Billions of extra dollars have typically been slipped into the Pentagon’s annual budget and separate supplemental war-funding bills through such earmarks, Reuters adds
Having both congressional chambers and the White House controlled by Democrats makes it easier to impose party discipline, at least initially, said one congressional aide.
“My suspicion is that the (defense) secretary won’t be able to hold this firm line indefinitely,” said the aide. “This is sort of a unique moment in time. But over time, I suspect the system is going to develop resistance.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye has said he hopes to pass a “clean” bill, free of earmarks, when his panel meets Thursday to vote on the final 2009 war budget.
That will be the last supplemental spending bill to pay for US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with such costs included in the Pentagon’s base budget for 2010.
The government’s fiscal 2010 year begins on October 1.
But any discipline imposed on the supplemental federal budget may be short-lived. The fear of job losses and other election imperatives will spur lawmakers to seek extra funding for programs in their home districts, analysts say.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already signaled that he will try to tamp down efforts by the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to seek congressional “plus ups” for programs that were scaled back in the 2010 budget proposal.
After forcing top Pentagon officials to promise in writing that they would not leak budget information, Gates said last month that he expected to be briefed on any 2010 “unfunded priorities” before they were submitted to Congress.
Decisions on some key programs — a new long-range bomber, a new cruiser warship, cargo planes and amphibious ships — have been deferred until the Pentagon completes a major review of programs in late summer, which may make the services reluctant to publicly defy Gates.
“Gates has something hanging over the services, the tremendously sharp blade of the Quadrennial Defense Review,” said one lobbyist. He spoke on condition of anonymity because some of his company’s programs were still under discussion with lawmakers and defense officials.
Chris Hellman, military policy fellow at the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said Congress was also under more pressure than ever before.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel asked Democratic leaders in the Senate and House last month to stop defense appropriators from adding massive weapons spending to the supplemental 2009 budget and to keep it free of most earmarks.
Representative John Murtha, weakened by a series of federal investigations of lobbyists and companies close to him, agreed not to add money for more Boeing Co F/A-18 fighter jets and up to $1 billion to ensure both Boeing and Northrop Grumman Corp got aerial tanker orders.
However, the bill did include $2.2 billion for eight more Boeing C-17 transport planes but that was seven less than Murtha had sought.
Defense spending levels are being closely tracked by the Pentagon’s top contractors: Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics Corp, and Britain’s BAE Systems.
Jobs are a concern of Republican Kit Bond and 18 other senators, who wrote to Inouye this week asking for funding to add 15 C-17s to the 2009 supplemental budget. Shutting the nation’s last large military aircraft production line, they argued, would jeopardize 30,000 jobs in 43 states.
Bond, also a Boeing backer, was to meet with Boeing workers from the International Association of Machinists this week.
Union members already met with Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, on Tuesday. “This is about our nation’s economic stability, our military capability, and ensuring that our workers are a consideration in the decisions we are making on major defense contracts,” Murray said.
Representative Ike Skelton, the powerful head of the House Armed Services Committee and a man not known for blind support of weapons programs, on Wednesday commended Gates for trying to control cost overruns.
But he left the door open to possible changes in the 2010 budget plan, citing concerns about equipment shortfalls, the shrinking size of the US Navy fleet, and an expected shortfall of 300 strike fighters.
“I expect we will find that DOD (Department of Defense) will have serious and compelling unmet requirements. It will be incumbent upon us to recognize them and mitigate the risks they represent appropriately,” Skelton told Gates.
Defense industry executives, analysts and congressional aides say it’s too soon to tell if the administration can halt earmark funding for Pentagon warplanes and weapons.
One industry executive said the US economic crisis would make it tougher for companies to secure funding for programs outside the base defense budget, especially because future war budgets were to be wrapped into the base.
Another said his company was trying to adjust to the change. “We’re trying to understand how this process is going to work now,” the executive said, adding he would work more closely with the services to get weapons funding woven into the base budget from the start, rather than via earmarks.
Past defense secretaries, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, tried and failed to cut big-ticket programs, due to fierce opposition from Congress. However, they lacked the strong presidential backing Gates appears to have, Hellman said.
Ultimately, lawmakers’ interests would likely prevail, Hellman said. “When it comes to Capitol Hill,” he said. “The constituencies that support the status quo are too powerful.”