A congressman says a Republican-led defense panel in Congress this week ignored the "elephant in the room" in rejecting his proposal to give the Pentagon more flexibility to deal with automatic budget cuts.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., sponsored an amendment to let the Defense Department transfer as much as $20 billion across accounts to better deal with the reductions, known as sequestration.
The House Armed Services Committee voted 45-16 against the measure earlier this week as part of a marathon debate to amend, or mark-up, its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill. The legislation sets policy goals and spending targets for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
"I am sorry it's 1:30 in the morning before we face the elephant in the room," Cooper said during the hearing that began June 5, referring to sequestration. He called the across-the-board cuts "arbitrary stupidity" and their effect on building such items as naval ships "insanity," and criticized committee members for failing "to do anything about it."
The Defense Department faces $500 billion in automatic cuts over the next decade. That’s in addition to almost $500 billion in defense reductions already included in 2011 deficit-reduction legislation. The first installment of the automatic cuts began March 1 after lawmakers were unable to reach an alternative agreement on taxes and spending.
In a statement e-mailed June 7 to Military.com, Cooper said the amendment failed because lawmakers from both political parties refuse to heed warnings from Pentagon officials that the reductions will weaken the military.
"My amendment was the only comprehensive attempt during the entire 16-hour markup to reduce the harm caused by sequestration," he said. "Although the amendment passed on voice vote, when members could vote anonymously, it failed on recorded vote when they had to go on record."
Cooper added, "Both Republicans and Democrats have been unwilling to reach a grand bargain that would eliminate sequestration entirely, or even to offer government agencies flexibility so that the sequestration cuts are not so arbitrary and harmful."
During the hearing, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's chairman, praised Cooper for being a "very serious" member of Congress.
"I have the utmost respect for him and he's really trying to do something here to help this problem that we're confronting," McKeon said. But the proposal "really doesn't solve the problem," he said. "What we really need to do is get rid of the sequestration."
The committee's bill, H.R.1960, would authorize $552 billion in defense spending, including related energy programs, and $86 billion in war spending. That’s higher than what’s allowed under the automatic cuts. The measure would be paid for by reducing non-defense portions of the federal budget — a move opposed by the Democratic-led Senate and White House.
Like the White House’s, the House panel’s spending plan assumes Republicans and Democrats will reach a deal to end sequestration, even though the parties remain at an impasse. Defense Department officials have begun planning for scenarios in which the reductions continue into next year.
The Pentagon this year is projected to spend $574 billion. That figure, which includes a base budget and separate funding for the war in Afghanistan, known as oversees contingency operations, is about $41 billion less than what it originally sought due to the first round of decade-long automatic cuts that took effect in March. As a result of those reductions and higher-than-expected war costs, the Pentagon is asking Congress for permission to transfer $9.6 billion. Lawmakers may vote on the request on next week, according to industry sources.