The Bottom Line - New SecDef, New Congress, Old Problems By Col. Mike Hayden, USAF, Ret. January 13, 2015

The Bottom Line - New SecDef, New Congress, Old Problems

By Col. Mike Hayden, USAF, Ret. January 13, 2015

The 114th Congress is now in office, and secretary of defense nominee Ashton Carter awaits confirmation. Many observers in the press are speculating what this turnover in congressional and Pentagon leadership means for the military community.

You can color me interested, too.

Carter is known within Pentagon circles as a reformer on acquisition costs, while incoming Armed Services Committee Chairs Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) also have signaled plans to tackle acquisition reform.

But acquisition will not be the only item these three will face.

There are several issues over the coming months that will drive the discussion. By Feb. 1, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) will issue its anticipated report detailing proposals to overhaul military compensation and personnel programs.

At the same time, the White House will release its FY 2016 budget request. The request must grapple with the budget caps established by sequestration that return in full force Oct. 1.

Somehow Congress will need to address the conflict between the budget submission, which is expected to exceed sequestration’s limits, and the caps established by the law.

Can Congress find cost-saving reforms in time? Acquisition reform can take years to yield savings. Sequestration’s budget rules limit where money can be cut to the point where Congress has forced itself to make the false choice between people programs or weapon systems. But infrastructure and weapons programs are political hot buttons that often generate “not in my backyard” cries from legislators.

What’s the quickest way to show savings in the accounting books? Draw down troop levels and shift personnel costs onto the backs of servicemembers and their families.

The next few months will include a flood of activity for the new secretary of defense, Congress, and MOAA, with political posturing and the formulation of defense bills. The question is whether the MCRMC recommendations will affect the FY 2016 defense bill process.

The first year of a new Congress provides greater opportunity to implement sweeping reforms. Legislators arrive in Washington emboldened by a sense of popular mandate in their first year, without the fear of an upcoming election.

It’s unlikely any MCRMC recommendations will be included in the White House budget submission, as budget planners have been working for months on the FY 2016 proposal. However, this won’t stop members of Congress from trying to include them in the defense bill markup process, especially if the proposals come with a blessing from Pentagon leadership.

That endorsement might come quickly. The Military Times already has reported Pentagon leaders plan to take a month to review the MCRMC recommendations and finalize a position for the new secretary — all in advance of the markup timelines.

MOAA’s biggest concern is that the new Congress will look at the Pentagon and the MCRMC proposals with the purpose of saving money or cutting the budget and will make decisions based on arbitrary budget caps, without considering how compensation and benefits are necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality all-volunteer force.

The bottom line: The next few months will be very busy, and we will need all hands on deck to make sure your voice on the pay and benefits needed to sustain the all-volunteer force is heard by legislators. We ask that you pay close attention to the report in early February and participate in MOAA’s grassroots efforts to ensure shortsighted budget savings don’t come at the expense of the health of the all-volunteer force.

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