Coping with Congress

Lawmakers have given agencies long-term funding clarity for the first time in years. But the lack of budget drama could open the door to other conflicts.

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Cooperation from Congress -- or at least some helpful guidance -- would benefit many agencies as they face serious internal challenges. Instead, federal executives are often forced to cope with near-constant partisan clashes, gotcha-oriented oversight and other disruptive behavior. On Capitol Hill, even when the two parties manage to find limited agreement, many insiders concede that dysfunction rules.

So a glimmer of hope appeared last December when leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate overcame their persistent budget conflicts and agreed to keep the government operating for the next two years. For the first time since 2010, they reached consensus on federal spending levels. Government shutdowns would in all likelihood be avoided. Even the dreaded meat-ax budget sequester was suspended through 2015.

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The moment wasn't quite ripe for a chorus of "Happy Days Are Here Again," but President Barack Obama captured the spirit when he praised the deal. "This agreement doesn't include everything I'd like -- and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That's the nature of compromise," he said in a Dec. 10 statement. "But it's a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven ¬decision-making to get this done."

Deep-seated conflicts remain

That holiday spirit didn't last long. Consider the Defense Department, which has struggled with the manpower and weaponry implications of huge spending cuts in recent years as it wound down two wars in Asia and ramped up preparations for other conflicts, including cyberwarfare and terrorism threats. When Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top DOD officials presented budget recommendations in March that met the spending levels Congress had decreed, key Republicans reacted with fury and essentially told Hagel to start over.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a respected veteran and military expert, sarcastically greeted Hagel at a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee by saying that the Pentagon's "timing is exquisite."

"The world is probably more unsettled than any time since the end of World War II," McCain continued, in reference to Russia's invasion and subsequent takeover of Crimea. "You've come here with a budget that constrains us in a way that's unprecedented" and reduces Army forces to pre-Pearl Harbor levels. McCain ended his attack by walking out of the hearing room.

In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) responded to the Pentagon's budget proposal by dismissing DOD's recently unveiled Quadrennial Defense Review as of little value to decision-makers. Contending that it has more to do with politics than policy, he said the review wrongly decided to accept current spending levels rather than "identify the budget needed to address the evolving threat." He ordered DOD to "rewrite and resubmit a compliant report."

And it's not just DOD. Although the broader spending conflict has been temporarily set aside, deep-seated problems remain between Congress and the White House on the budget and the governing process. Even with December's budget agreement, most appropriations bills likely won't be settled until after the November elections, when Republicans hope to take control of the Senate and thereby increase their leverage.

Furthermore, presidential budgets have increasingly become irrelevant. Leaders of both parties dismissed Obama's belated fiscal 2015 proposal in March as chiefly a political document that was dead on arrival. "The president's proposals have stopped being the place where discussions begin and instead just give Congress something to criticize and reject out of hand," said budget expert Stan Collender.

Publicity vs. substance

On Capitol Hill, oversight hearings have become partisan hits rather than efforts to offer constructive assistance for agencies or programs. Lawmakers' conflicts with DOD and the Environmental Protection Agency (see sidebar) might be particularly high-profile, but they reflect the troubles facing countless agencies. Continuing investigations into the Department of Health and Human Services' implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the Internal Revenue Service's review of tax-exempt groups, for example, are designed to attract publicity rather than resolve problems. Beleaguered agency officials respond defensively, with lawyers at their sides.

Longtime DOD Comptroller Robert Hale revealed the depths of the Pentagon's frustration in late March when he urged a Senate subcommittee not to tamper with planned moves to reduce personnel costs, according to a report in Navy Times. "If you choose to roll them back," he warned, "you'll have to take the money out of somewhere else."

photo of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifying before Congress

 

In recent decades, lawmakers have repeatedly balked at what DOD officials have described as essential decisions to reduce bases and other facilities at home and abroad. The problem has grown with recent troop cuts overseas and the bitter conflicts that accompanied the most recent base realignment and closure review in 2005.

Hagel has urged Congress to authorize a new BRAC review that would end in 2017. He told reporters that if Congress does not cooperate, he might make internal changes to reduce infrastructure. "Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough," Hagel said. But lawmakers receive intense pressure from local communities that are reluctant to lose the economic boost of military bases in the U.S.

Furthermore, at Washington-area conferences that have included many military contractors, top DOD officials have outlined the challenges they face when buying IT and services.

"It struck me how incredibly complicated it was, how difficult it was for program managers to just make their way through that maze," said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

He lamented the difficulty of going through the legislative process and set low objectives for the coming year. "We'll try to get low-hanging fruit," he said and added that lawmakers' tendency to "keep adding statutory requirements year over year over year, all trying to improve things…just makes the burden on program managers huge."

Sequestration still looms

Given the limited political reward for dealing with such issues, most lawmakers prefer to focus on broader and more newsworthy stories. The Russian invasion of Crimea presented that opportunity, along with continuing hot spots in Syria, Iran and the Korean peninsula.

When Hagel appeared before the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee in mid-March to discuss his budget plan, which he said "begins to make the hard choices that we're all going to have to make," he updated his testimony to include recent developments in Ukraine. Nevertheless, several panel members broadened the discussion to other ongoing conflicts.

"We need to work together to help the Department of Defense address very serious challenges, from ending major combat operations in Afghanistan to addressing enduring threats from North Korea and Iran and flashpoints in the Middle East, Africa and Asia," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told Hagel. She also noted that many lawmakers remain concerned about sexual assaults, suicide and the quality of life in the military.

Adding to the Pentagon's problems with congressional oversight has been the recent turnover of senior congressional leaders in both parties, most notably on the appropriations subcommittees.

In addition, the pending retirements of the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees -- McKeon and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) -- will lead to big leadership shifts and organizational changes at the end of the year. House Republicans leaders' willingness to leapfrog seniority in selecting new committee chairmen adds to the internal competition and tensions. But the current front-runners for their parties' slots -- Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) -- are both regarded as cerebral and experienced in dealing with military and security issues.

For Pentagon officials in particular, getting to know prospective chairmen is very important. Despite the two-year suspension of the budget sequester, the timetable that was created in a 2011 budget deal is scheduled to resume next year, which is a daunting scenario.

"Our detailed planning for sequestration-level cuts showed that sequestration would impose some force structure reductions that simply can't be implemented with the push of a button," Hagel told the House Appropriations Committee. "They require…longer time horizons in planning."

Unfortunately, recent history shows that long-term planning is not lawmakers' strong suit.

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