“It would be almost a misnomer to call this a budget. It’s [just] numbers,” Rep. Randy Forbes told me this morning, in advance of tomorrow’s budget hearing. “If you look at the numbers that have been given to us, they’re pretty good, [but] in a budget you have to make priorities.” Obama laid out a robust defense program but didn’t say what he’d cut to fund it — conservatives like Forbes would suggest domestic spending — and still stay within “realistic” spending figures, Forbes said: “He sent over a wish list.”
“The wish list as it pertains to the Navy and projection forces is pretty good,” Forbes acknowledged. “My subcommittee” — Seapower and Projection Forces — “does very well.” The president’s proposal keeps shipbuilding rates up, makes clear the nuclear carrier USS George Washington will be refueled, and ends the Navy’s attempts to scrap or sideline aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Those are all things Forbes has been fighting for.
The administration also proposes a beefed-up frigate version of the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, something Forbes and his subcommittee have scrutinized closely, even scathingly. While generally supportive of the program, Forbes promises not to let up on LCS. With the upgrade plan, “the Navy has come back and just simply said, ‘this is the best we can do, and we do need a small combatant vessel, this will fill the bill,'” Forbes said. “But I don’t think they have answered a lot of the main criticisms of the program itself.”
As for another Forbes focus, the UCLASS armed drone, the administration has effectively put the program on hold while it reviews how much combat power the carrier-based robot really needs. That’s a relief for Forbes, who’d feared the Navy was rushing to failure before the Office of the Secretary of Defense hit the brakes. “It’s important for us to get the right answer, even if it’s later, than to get the wrong answer today,” Forbes told me. “This is going to be vitally important, Sydney, as you know, to the future not just of UCLASS, but of our carriers and our carrier wings.”
But to fund all these programs and more, both defense and domestic, the president’s spending plan relies on the repeal –or at least temporary suspension — of the 2011 Budget Control Act. While almost everyone on the Hill hates the so-called sequester, no one’s been able to make a deal to end it. Even the usually optimistic Forbes told me this morning that how hopeful he is goes up and down from day to day. And even in the best case, he said, if sequestration goes away, the budget is still going to be tight — probably tighter than the president’s plan allows.
So the president, Forbes said, punted the hard choices to Congress. “Because the president didn’t choose any priorities,” he said, “we will find both the House and the Senate budget committees trying to strike those priority decisions in the upcoming weeks.” That includes whether to get rid of sequester.
“It will be a defining decision on our part,” Forbes said. He hopes the (Republican-controlled) Congress will say what the (Democratic) president did not: that “defense is the No. 1 priority of this country; we get that wrong and everything else fails.”
“When it comes to national defense, it is very easy to get our focus off the major priority,” Forbes said. “The major priority, the major problem, is not what the intent is of our adversary. It is not whether there is a $600 toilet seat or too much bureaucracy — [though] they’re all problems.” Instead, he said, “the central problem” is that the power of potential enemies — “those who may want to hurt us today and those who may want to hurt us tomorrow” — is “increasing geometrically” while US power “is decreasing geometrically.”
Amidst all the procedural chaos, fiscal confusion, and partisan conflict in Washington, “we have to continue to discipline ourselves not to run off after the red herrings and squeaky wheels,” Forbes said. It’s those long-term strategic trends that matter more than anything, he said: “We have to continue to focus on those curve lines and get those curve lines changed.”