Just one more day of garment-rending, teeth-gnashing, and hair-tearing at the Pentagon, and then...well, then the Department of Defense has to get cracking before the roof really caves in on March 27.
Oh, you thought the fight was about March 1 and sequester? Not half likely, as the Brits would say. The real game has always been about March 27, when the continuing resolution, which has funded the government for the last five months, expires. That's when the government shuts down or, if it doesn't, when we find out how much money the Pentagon really has to spend this year.
Sequester is happening. While the White House continues its theater and the president goes on the road, realism has set in about this show -- even among congressional Republicans. When House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon is ready to fold his cards after nearly two years of non-stop campaigning to "save defense," you know the fat lady has sung on the March 1 deadline: "Republicans aren't cookie cutters, but we do agree on the basic premise of where we're trying to go. And if we don't get our fiscal house in order, it's very hard to provide for the defense of the nation."
Now it's time to get on with the business of managing the defense drawdown, starting with the walk over the next hurdle. The real deadline has always been March 27. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter effectively conceded this point on January 10, when he instructed the military services to start planning for cuts not only because of the impending sequester, but also because of the continuing resolution, which kept FY 2013 discretionary spending (including defense) at the FY 2012 level, pending passage of an actual appropriations bill.
Planning was particularly critical for what is called the operations and maintenance, or O&M, account. The O&M budget -- which makes up over 40 percent of the Pentagon's total budget -- covers everything from the costs of sailing ships, to driving tanks, to flying planes, to maintaining bases, fixing equipment, training and educating the force, to, especially, the salaries of the 800,000 civilians who work for DOD. It is particularly vulnerable to sequester because other large Pentagon expenses will not be cut through sequestration. Military personnel and their benefits (including retirees) are exempt under the law, and dollars already obligated to contracts shield contractors from the near-term impact of sequester.
What's more, DOD had actually wanted to grow the O&M account, asking for a 6 percent increase when it submitted its FY 2013 budget request. And, adding insult to injury, during the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Pentagon actually spent its operations and maintenance funding at the higher rate it had requested -- not the FY 2012 level funded in the continuing resolution. "Silly us," Deputy Secretary Carter said of that mistake. That's why March 27 represents a real reckoning point for the Pentagon.
So the questions are: Will Congress negotiate a final appropriation for FY 2013, or just extend the continuing resolution through the rest of the fiscal year, leaving the Pentagon (and other agencies) at the FY 2012 level of funding (and still subject to sequester)? Or will there be an actual appropriation for the military, setting a final level above the continuing resolution (also still subject to sequester)?