Congress rips sequestration planning procrastination

Military leaders tried to explain to the House Armed Services Committee why it waited till the end to plan for sequestration budget cuts.

The decision by Pentagon leaders to delay the planning for a potential budget cut that would slash 10 percent off expected defense spending was always a curious one.

These are the same leaders who often hold breakfast meetings just to plan out how they will hold a formal planning session. Planning is in the military’s blood.

That’s what made the past year of sequestration hearings and Pentagon speeches so odd when military leaders would tell anyone who would listen that the military had no interest in planning for sequestration. This budget mechanism threatens to cut half a trillion dollars from the Pentagon’s budget over the next ten years.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would often say you can’t plan for a meat ax.  He would ask Congress how they expected the military to plan for a cut that generals and admirals had not control over. The Budget Control Act, which outlines sequestration, specified that the military would have to cut every program’s budget line by 10 percent, no exceptions.

Not until December did the Pentagon start making plans for sequestration ahead of the Jan. 2 deadline, officials said.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., grilled defense leaders on Wednesday over why they chose to wait until December to start making those plans. He said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on sequestration that the lack of details the military provided made it hard for committee members to persuade the rest of Congress to stop sequestration.

“We’ve been after the Pentagon for well over a year to give us the specificity of what this would actually mean,” Forbes said. “We were constantly told we can’t get that information because we haven’t done the planning. My point is that it would have been a lot easier for us to persuade Congress to act if we had that specificity months ago instead of waiting until a couple weeks before the deadline.”

Of course, sequestration is a product of a Congressional vote.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told Forbes that the military decided not to plan for sequestration because they were told it would never happen.

“We made the decision in the Department of Defense that we agreed with that we would wait on planning. Frankly, that was because we never thought it was going to be executed,” Odierno said.

The Army four-star said that military brass did all it could to explain how devastating the cuts would be when combined with budget uncertainties surrounding the continuing resolution.

“I communicated the impact of sequestration last year. It might have been general in nature but we were very clear on the impact of sequestration so our testimony on sequestration is not new,” Odierno said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter agreed with Odierno saying that planning isn’t the problem, it’s acting prematurely that worried military leaders.

“We have been describing the consequences of sequester for a very long time. We’ve anticipated that they’re not hard to see. So planning isn’t the problem. It has never been the problem,” Carter said. “The problem was doing something. We didn’t do anything until the last few months … because doing so is harmful.”

What the Pentagon did was put restrictions on spending on such things as travel and conferences while also outlining plans to furlough all Defense Department civilians in March. In Carter’s memo to the Pentagon, he emphasized that any cost cutting actions taken ahead of sequestration should be reversible.

It’s understandable that the Pentagon didn’t want to take any actions months before sequestration because lawmakers so often said sequestration would never come to pass. However, it remains curious that military leaders failed to provide actual details on what the sequestration cuts would mean for the military.