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Budgeteers to the Rescue

Can accountants save the Pentagon?

Will the fiscal cliff turn into a mere step off the curb for the Pentagon? It may depend on the definition that the administration's accountants use in applying the Budget Control Act to defense -- a definition about which there seems to be disagreement.

The Office of Management and Budget put out its sequester report ten days ago, saying it could not provide details on how the budget sequester would affect government "programs, projects, and activities (PPA)," the way last year's Budget Control Act requires, because Congress only gave the agency 30 days to complete the report. The number-crunchers just didn't have time to get their institutional arms around the definition of PPA and wrestle the details to the ground, according to OMB.

So their report only assessed the impact of sequestration at the level of "accounts," of which there are about 50 in the Pentagon budget -- Air Force aircraft procurement, Navy operations and maintenance, etc. Every one of these accounts has multiple programs tucked inside -- specific weapons systems, for example -- and OMB implied that each of those programs would be hit in a sequester with a 9.4 percent cut.

OMB is still working on exactly what PPA means across the government, but yesterday in an offhand comment Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale was reported as saying that the OMB document "would give us more flexibility" because it might allow DOD "accounts" to be defined as the PPA.

If Hale's interpretation survives the day, DOD would have an early holiday present. And it would put out the firestorm being whipped up both by the secretary of defense and by such Republican stalwarts as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Buck McKeon, who have been running a high-volume mini-campaign about the fiscal cliff, warning about job losses, plant closures, and layoff notices -- all backed up by the Aerospace Industries Association's warning about a million defense jobs being lost in the event of sequestration.

Not reporting out data on specific programs ten days ago allowed the Obama administration to escape the politically-charged damage of identifying specific programs and locations that would be hit by the automatic cuts in the middle of the election campaign. That makes a smaller political target for defenders of the F-35, like Lockheed Martin, which integrates the plane, and whose CEO, Bob Stevens, has loudly warned that he will have to send layoff notices to his workers before the election because of the impact of the sequester.

But the Hale interpretation also breaks with past precedent. In the sequesters under the old Gramm Rudman Hollings Act of 1985 (incorporated into the Budget Control Act), OMB defined "PPA" as "program elements" in the defense budget, which means individual programs, like the F-35. This time around, that interpretation would lead to a 9.4 percent cut in resources for each and every specific program; a tough management task. (Though perhaps not that tough: As an Air Force program manager told me last week: "You're telling me I have to manage my program this year with 9.4 percent fewer dollars than I asked for. Heck, that's my job; I do it all the time inside my overall program account. I could do it with no harm to the program at all.")

For DOD, the "accounts as PPAs" interpretation would provide a gift if there is a sequester: flexibility. If a 9.4 percent budget cut hit "Air Force procurement," the Pentagon would have greater flexibility to find those dollars, trading off between various aircraft programs. Defense officials could reduce the funding for additional work on the troubled F-22; they could slow the buy of the new tanker; they could protect the F-35 from the cuts. The budget request for Air Force Aircraft Procurement is $11.3 billion, leaving lots of room for "in flight" budgetary maneuvers. Not so rigid, and good news for Pentagon managers looking for space to maneuver.

Hale's comment may be more wish than reality; it may not last for long. There is no sign from OMB that it agrees, and it is very easy (and probably right, I understand) to read the OMB report the other way. But it tells us the sequester "shadow play" is not over. Flexible or not, though, DOD is in for budget discipline it has not seen over the past decade, something I will be writing about in the coming weeks.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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