THE NEWSEUM: In a glass-walled conference center overlooking the snow-shrouded US Capitol, three legislators expressed guarded optimism that Congress could reach a modest budget deal. [UPDATED: The chairs of the House and Senate budget committees announced a plan late Tuesday night, but it has yet to pass into law]. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that such a deal – even one that slows down the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration for the next two years – is just a first step backwards from the brink. So the burning question for the hardcore Navy and Marine Corps supporters at the US Naval Institute conference here, and for the pro-defense lawmakers who addressed them, is how to make the case for defense spending in the longer term.
“We’re shooting for a deal that would provide two years of certainty – a budget for the remainder, and appropriations bills for the remainder, of FY ’14 and also for FY ’15,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who’d actually prefer Congress go to two-year budgets. Sworn in just in January, the former Virginia governor sits both on Armed Services and in the Budget Conference Committee now thrashing out the budget for fiscal year 2014, which began two months ago. “We’re in the hopefully closing phases of a budget conference that I think will offer some certainty to our military” and add back $20 billion that sequester would have taken away, he said.
“I’m guardedly optimistic,” Kaine said. “I’m actually completely optimistic….The guarded part is just that I’m new enough [that] I have not yet completely honed my ability to determine is it real or is it Memorex.”
“’14 and ’15 are going to be particularly challenging years with regard to sequestration” if it says in place as-is, added Sen. Kelly Ayotte, an up-and-coming Republican who like Kaine sits on both the armed services and budget committees, although not in the conference. 16 continuing resolutions, two near-defaults, and one government shutdown in her two years in office have not given Ayotte much confidence in Congress’s ability to get things done. But after this fall’s debacle, she said, “I don’t think there’s stomach for another shutdown, thankfully, [which] gives me optimism that there will be an agreement.”
Both Senate budget chairwoman Patty Murray (Dem.) and House budget chairman Paul Ryan (GOP) sound optimistic, Ayotte went on, “but the danger is they bring forward an agreement, and then people on both sides of the aisle start torpedoing it, and it falls apart.”
Kaine agreed: “If it was just up to the chairs at this point, the deal is about five minutes away — but they each have to have a deal they can sell in their respective bodies, to the two parties.”
House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes also struck a note of hope – but also of profound frustration. “I think there’s a realistic chance to bump these numbers up in the appropriations bills and in the budget bill,” he said. “[But] it is amazing that how many of them in leadership believe this is like a faucet, you turn it on and you turn it off.” But cuts today have long-term consequences for military readiness, modernization, and R&D that take years to repair, Forbes argued.
“We have pleaded, literally pleaded to get the leadership on both sides of the aisle, Republican and Democrat, just get the classified briefing on what’s happening to the military now because of sequestration and cuts,” Forbes said with audible distress. “We can’t even accomplish that.” (Classified briefings open to all House members have so far drawn only about two dozen legislators not already on the House Armed Services Committee). “So,” Forbes said, “it’s not just the members; it’s the leadership.”
“I don’t see the urgency right now in either political party to try to fix these numbers,” Forbes said. “My biggest fear is not just where the cuts are going to take us. My biggest fear is what I hear and see in people’s eyes, even people in this room, they’re starting to accept that, they’re starting to settle for that and starting to say ‘that’s the new norm.’”
So how does an-ever shrinking military and defense industry make the case to Congress beyond the defense committees?
“We do have to proselytize, we do need more missionaries, we can’t talk to the choir,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Frank Hoffman, a leading thinker on the military now at National Defense University. “Let us praise seapower and lift our voices in song,” he told the Naval Institute audience today, “but let’s also get Congress to pass the plate.”
But here’s the problem, Rep. Forbes said: When a legislator faces a vote on cutting defense, he said, “you have some people on the far right who, if I vote to cut $15 billion, [are] gonna be calling screaming because I didn’t cut $20 billion.” (Forbes didn’t say “Tea Party,” but we all know who he meant).
“Then there’s people over here on the left who’re going to be calling and screaming, ‘why didn’t you cut defense and put it on my [domestic] programs?’” Forbes went on. “[But] if somebody votes to cut the military, there’s crickets…. They don’t get a single call from anybody, unless they’re in an area that is a major area for defense” – and the more the defense industry shrinks, the fewer such districts there are.
The defense industry needs to build a “grassroots network” that goes far beyond the big prime contractors, Forbes said. “It’s no longer good enough just have the guys that build the carriers to talk to the people in their areas,” he exhorted the group. “You’ve got to overlay all of these vendor bases across the country, which touch almost every congressional district…. Employees of these vendor bases, they need to be picking up the phone and calling on some of these votes.”
That kind of upwelling takes time to organize, however – and both the budget deal and the much-delayed national defense authorization act are probably coming up for votes by Christmas.
Just after Sen. Kaine spoke of his optimism, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus took the floor: “I hope we are close to two things, a budget deal and a defense bill, because the way we’re going it puts everything at risk,” he said.
His message to Congress, Mabus went on, is the same one Pentagon leaders have been sending on the budget for two years: “Give us some certainty, give us some flexibility, and give us the ability to make cuts in a way that we can do so strategically and not just in this dumb meat-axe way.”
Updated Wednesday 8:00 am.