Tomorrow, President Obama will finally release his overdue budget request, and the next day, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on that request.
The hearing witnesses will be Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. It appears likely that the President’s request will propose more funding for defense in fiscal year (FY) 2014 and beyond than permitted by sequestration, but much less than the U.S. has spent on defense in recent years.
The President’s proposed funding level for defense is less than what the military needs to uphold established security commitments over the longer term. Sequestration levels of funding will make the gap between funding levels for defense and maintaining the military capacity to fulfill U.S. security commitments even greater.
The worst aspect of the problem is that the President’s overall federal budget policy serves to obfuscate the defense funding issue. This is because his overall budget policy is all but certain to perpetuate both the existing impasse with Congress and the sequestration process. Thus, the President is proposing a budget that makes it appear that he wants higher overall defense spending levels than permitted by sequestration, while his actions make it a virtual certainty that sequestration will continue.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee should use the hearing on Thursday to get to the bottom of the President’s attempt at obfuscation. First, they need to get the Secretary of Defense to acknowledge that the President’s overall budget proposal is at odds with the likely outcome for the defense budget. Accordingly, the committee members should ask pointed questions about whether the President, despite his defense budget request, is actually working to bring about sequestration funding levels for defense.
Second, the Members should ask General Dempsey about implications of defense funding, even at the requested level, for lower personnel levels, smaller forces, curtailed modernization programs and gaps in training and maintenance.
Finally, both witnesses should be asked about whether projected funding levels for defense, particularly under sequestration, will break the military and what steps they propose be taken now in order to permit the nation’s defense capabilities to be re-built at a later date.
A President’s budget proposal is about more than just numbers. It reflects what the President values and what he does not value, at least in relative terms. It is very likely to be the case, following the release of President Obama’s budget for FY 2014 and beyond, that maintaining U.S. military capabilities and honoring existing security commitments are low priorities for him.