The Skeptics

Breaking Down the Pentagon Strategy Memo Debate

What do you call it when a government department or agency sends memos back and forth, elicits feedback from senior leadership about the best path forward, and plots strategy about the best way to deal with Congress on a particular issue impacting its work? To most, this wouldn’t sound like an especially controversial or unprecedented thing for a department or agency to do; Washington is the bureaucratic capital of the country, and this kind of internal strategizing happens every single day. Those on the outside looking in just aren’t privy to the details and the sausage-making.

This is why the outrage being directed from congressional Republicans about a leaked, internal memo crafted by the Pentagon’s senior leadership about the defense budget seems a little strange. The story begins with a Pentagon strategy memo written by Mike McCord, an Under Secretary for Defense and Stephen Hedger, the Pentagon’s top liaison with Congress, outlining the department’s objections to the House GOP defense budget and its use of the overseas contingency operations fund. The House Republican plan, which passed the chamber on a bipartisan vote, would have diverted $18 billion from the OCO fund to pad items in the base defense budget that Republicans believed were being shortchanged. The 2011 Budget Control Act and the 2015 budget agreement caps the amount of money the Pentagon can spend in the base budget, which means that Pentagon budgeters are unable to go over that limit without triggering the doomed sequester. House Republicans are maneuvering around those restrictions by tapping into the OCO account, which is not subject to the BCA caps.

The problem is that allowing this gimmick to stand would raid a part of the budget that should be reserved exclusively for wartime spending. Indeed, the House Republican plan would force the next administration to come back to Congress far earlier for a supplemental in order to continue fighting the wars America’s troops are engaged in.

Defense Department objections should not be a surprise. In fact, they were telegraphed to Congress months before the House and Senate even began debating the bills that keep America’s military fully operated and funded.  This summer, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote a scathing 21-page letter to Sen. John McCain outlining why he views the GOP funding plan for the Pentagon as so distressing - a move that would ordinarily be kept quiet instead of deliberately fashioned into a press release.  "By gambling with warfighting funds,” Carter writes, "the bill risks the safety of our men and women fighting to keep America safe, undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles our allies, and emboldens our enemies.  In short, it is an approach that is objectionable on its face.”

With all of this in mind, should Republicans really be surprised that Pentagon officials are attempting to devise a way to ensure that OCO isn’t touched?  Of course not.  Indeed, if Secretary Carter felt so strongly about keeping the overseas fund whole, it would be foolish for him not to do everything in his power to make sure that the Defense Department had the best possible chance at success when dealing with members of Congress.  This is what this memo is all about — talking about options that can be utilized to keep OCO free from interference.

Some of the strategies that the Pentagon outlined in the memo are definitely hard for members of Congress to swallow. What’s more, they don’t always look good. The document, for instance, talks about dividing House Republicans against one another, encouraging a feud between the Senate and the House when it comes time for conference negotiations on the bill to begin, and talking with the Democratic Leadership to make sure that any presidential veto of the defense bill can be sustained. HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry clearly views the strategy document as an extension of the Obama administration’s penchant for politics. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, went a step further in his own statement: "For the Pentagon to so blatantly follow the White House’s politics first approach is a depressing commentary on this Administration’s utter disregard for our national security needs.” It’s a further sign that, like it or not, the Pentagon can’t remain permanently dodge the firepower that President Obama and congressional Republicans are aiming at one another.

Image: Creative Commons.