A new congressional proposal to slash 25 percent in spending from dozens of Defense Department agencies alarmed some lawmakers and analysts who said Wednesday that additional study is needed before agencies are closed, military services are curtailed and thousands of jobs are lost.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced aggressive new legislation Tuesday to cut spending from the Pentagon’s so-called “4th Estate,” which is comprised of 28 Defense Department agencies that include commissary, health and school services, combat support agencies such as the Defense Logistics Agency and military media outlets, including Stars and Stripes.
Some analysts and lawmakers expressed surprise at the legislative proposal in addition to concern, suggesting such an undertaking would not add up to perceived savings.
“Cutting the so-called 4th Estate might be an attractive way to save money out of the Department of Defense, but the juice is not worth the squeeze once you know what is in it,” said Lauren Fish, a defense strategies research associate for the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “It could cut the department’s ability to execute major warfighting functions.”
Thornberry’s proposal, which is called the Comprehensive Pentagon Bureaucracy Reform and Reduction Act, was the subject of a House panel debate Wednesday that raised a series of stumbling blocks to the legislation, including plans to close seven agencies while exempting others, what jobs would be lost and its negative impact on servicemembers.
The 4th Estate represents about 200,000 civilian personnel and nearly 600,000 contractors. It accounts for 20 percent of the Defense Department’s budget and 25 percent of the department’s workers.
“I have serious concerns,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. “It appears this proposal could do serious damage to DOD’s information infrastructure, testing ranges, and community support, as well as the basic DOD functions in the National Capital Region by eliminating critical agencies in one stroke.”
Thornberry said Tuesday that the spending cuts could amount to more than $25 billion, but estimates were not provided on how many civilian or contractor jobs would be eliminated or how many military personnel would be displaced as a result of the reductions.
For any military positions eliminated, servicemembers would be moved into a new job, Thornberry said.
“I don’t think 25 percent is set in stone,” Thornberry said following Wednesday’s hearing. But “we are going to have to find greater savings in order to properly support the warfighter in the future.”
The legislation calls for the elimination of seven 4th Estate agencies: the Defense Technical Information Center, the Defense Test Resource Management Center, Office of Economic Adjustment, the Defense Technology Security Administration, the Defense Human Resource Activities, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the department’s Washington Headquarters Service Agency.
Peter Levine, a former Defense Department official who is now a fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses, testified Wednesday that eliminating those seven agencies, which provide critical, and in some cases mandatory functions, would only amount to a 2 percent spending cut.
Excluding a large share of the remaining agencies devoted to military intelligence and combat support – such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Health Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency – leaves only one-quarter of the 4th Estate agencies susceptible to cuts, Levine said.
“It’s important not to have unreasonable expectations,” he said. “As you look at potential cuts you have to think about the programs that are going to be cut and you have to make choices and understand the impacts of your actions. Even so, there are things we can do more efficiently.”
The discussion before House Armed Services Committee could play into the development of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department.
Thornberry’s proposal would also restructure management for the agencies and install the department’s newly filled Chief Management Officer in charge of the 4th Estate. Chief Management Officer would report on the proposed cuts by March 2020 and then proceed with the reductions by 2021.
The legislative effort comes as lawmakers are under increasing scrutiny over aggressive spending in the last year. Republicans, in particular, have faced increasing pressure to find cost savings after passing a $1.3 trillion budget that will see the U.S. deficit soar.
“This caught me a bit by surprise …I knew that the [House Armed Services Committee] was looking at overhead but [I] did not think they were ready to do something like this,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Examining overhead is very sensible but these kinds of across-the-board cuts are blunt instruments and reflect an unwillingness to make the tough choices about what to cut or stop doing.”
Several committee members raised concerns during Wednesday’s hearing about why the 4th Estate was being targeted, especially in light of bigger spending issues. In addition, several members said the cuts could hurt critical services and quality-of-life issues for servicemembers.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., who is a self-described former military wife, said if a commissary shuts down on a base, it could hurt families who don’t have a car. The commissaries can be their lifeline, she argued.
“That just brings it right down to the ground level of what we are talking about,” she said. “There is a community there that needs to be heard.”
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., pointed out several, recent reports of wasteful spending and losses at the Pentagon. Among them, the military failed to track 95,000 vehicles provided to Afghan sources and other support, representing $3.1 billion.
That $3.1 billion should be cut from the Pentagon’s overall budget instead, Jones argued.
“That is sad for the taxpayers because we are headed for a financial collapse as a country,” he said. “Then we won’t have any money for the troops.”
Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., an Army veteran, said larger, faster savings would likely be found by hiring more Pentagon watchdogs, such as the ones who discovered the $3.1 billion in missing vehicles.
“We’re going to do it going after these big programs,” Russell said of finding savings. “We’re not going to see reform and savings …by eliminating Ms. Russell’s ability to buy a can of beans in the commissary.”
Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said the hearing Wednesday helped highlight the pitfalls ahead for such aggressive cuts.
“People are always concerned that you can make cuts that may sound good, but a lot of people could get hurt along the way,” she said. “There’s a lot more to this. It’s not as easy as it looks.”
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