CAPITOL HILL: House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry is hurtling cautiously ahead on the annual defense policy bill. He’s hurtling, because this week’s subcommittee mark-ups of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act are the earliest HASC has starting marking the bill in living memory. But he’s also characteristically cautious, promising little in public and consulting a great deal in private with appropriators, senators and the Pentagon.
“This morning I met with Frank Kendall” — the Pentagon’s top procurement officer — “going over some of the acquisition provisions,” Rep. Thornberry told reporters this afternoon. “He liked what we did, had some suggestions. So we’re going back and forth to try to get them right, and we’re going to obviously continue to do that through the conference process.”
Likewise, Thornberry said of his reform-minded Senate counterpart: “Sen. [John] McCain and I are in regular conversation. I think we’re all on the same page. We may not be exactly in the same place, but we’re on the same page.”
Thornberry actually has another week to refine the acquisition reform language. Most, if not all, of the proposals will be handled at the full committee level then, rather than in the subcommittee marks this week. And the chairman reiterated his commitment to constant consultation and fine-tuning throughout the year.
The same holds for military compensation. Traditionally untouchable, even as budgeteers warn its growth is unsustainable, military pay and benefits may now be on the table thanks to the recent report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
“I don’t want to get ahead of Doctor/General Heck on his personnel reform,” Thornberry said, referring to the one-star Army Reserve doctor who heads the personnel subcommittee, “[but] there will be a substantial amount of reform based on the commission recommendations.”
“One of the challenges,” Thornberry said, “[is that] we are not set to receive the formal Pentagon reaction to the compensation commission recommendations until after we have to mark. So there have been informal discussions, but I’ve also made it clear to Gen. [Martin] Dempsey” — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — “and others that those conversations will continue… all the way through conference.”
“People are the most important thing,” Thornberry said. “We want to get it right just like we want to get acquisition right.”
By far the biggest question mark looming over Thornberry’s bill, however, is whether the military will get anywhere near the money the administration has asked for. The president’s request ignored the Budget Control Act caps (often called sequestration). The House and Senate budget committees bypassed the BCA by placing all the money over and above the legal maximum in the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which as emergency spending don’t technically count against the caps. Thornberry, like most fiscal conservatives, seems uncomfortable with this legislative sleight of hand, but he also seems to believe it will hold up.
“We are going to authorize, and I think the appropriators are going to appropriate, the full amount of OCO,” Thornberry said. “It is clear that a big majority of our conference believes that we have to spend more on defense even if you do it in this kind of messy, not ideal way.”
What portions of the president’s request get moved from the base budget into OCO seems like a work in progress. Some accounts, like operations, maintenance, and other readiness funds, “make more sense” as emergency spending than others like R&D, Thornberry said. “For, me personally, I’m not too wrapped up in the label on the account,” he said. “What I am very focused on is we have adequate funding, as the military leadership has defined it, and that Congress does its job to authorize, appropriate, and oversee any of those accounts.”
He wants to oversee, but not to excess. One of the Pentagon’s chronic complaints has been the sheer number of annual reports it must submit to Congress, many of which are never read because the original author of the legislation is long gone. (Or is still on the Hill but just put the report requirement in for symbolic reasons). In this year’s bill, Thornberry said, with an real knock on wood, “here’s one thing I’m kind of proud of — and I shouldn’t say this because it’ll be reversed — …. there are some one-time reports, but as far as new repots that have to be there every year, I think we have none so far.”