"I want to help you," cried an exasperated Rep. Neil Abercrombie as he pressed the Army vice chief of staff today to explain whether the Army needed more money for equipment upgrades in the 2010 b udget because of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli said again and again that the Army had enough money in the 2010 budget request for overseas contingency funding to rebuild and refit equipment. Then Chiarelli said that OMB would not allow overseas contingency money to be spent on equipment upgrades.
You could almost see Defense Secretary Robert Gates' spirit peering over Chiarelli's shoulder as he got louder and louder in response to Abercrombie’s pressure. Pressed hard by Abercrombie, Chiarelli finally said: "I think it makes a lot of sense to upgrade when we can.... but the new rules are that we cannot do those upgrades." At least one observer voiced sympathy during the hearing for Chiarelli's difficult position -- between a defense secretary and a senior lawmaker.
Abercrombie told several reporters after the hearing -- as he hustled to the Capitol for a vote -- that he had heard for a while about some sort of restriction on equipment upgrades but had not had the rumor confirmed. Well, the House Armed Services Committee got it confirmed today that there is new executive branch rule -- or policy -- or guidance -- or something -- from OMB that forbids the services from doing equipment upgrades with Overseas Contingency Operations money.
As Abercrombie noted, there is a great deal of money at stake and he threatened Chiarelli that he would take it away from the Army since he had pressing needs for billions of dollars elsewhere in the budget. If the end of the hearing was any indication, the army stands to lose a fair amount of change in the defense authorization bill if Abercrombie has his way. After all, this is what Chiarelli said just before the hearing stopped early so lawmakers could head off for a string of votes: "We think we are going to be in good shape in 2010 with the money you have so generously given us."
But a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing will have to go on in the next week or two as lawmakers and their staff try to figure out just what OMB hath wrought and how the Congress should respond. It began at the end of today's hearing, when Chiarelli and some Marine officers held a vigorous tête-à-tête with Abercrombie. I tried speaking with some of the Army aides to get a clearer idea of just who was doing what. They were very polite and said they didn't know what OMB had done, adding that they would wait for their boss and for Congress to clarify the situation. While there is still a great deal to be learnt by all sides in this, Chiarelli may regret his staunch words when the bill finally passes. Sometimes speaking truth to power hurts.