White House At Odds With House on Weapons Cancellations

It's an old battle: executive branch expertise on how it thinks taxpayer dollars should be spent versus the congressional power of the purse. This story plays out often in the yearly authorization and appropriations bills for the Department of Defense (DOD). This year is not any different as a White House statement from yesterday makes clear.

Here is how this usually works. The DOD and the White House will submit a budget request to Congress. That budget assumes the cancellation and phase out of certain weapon systems and eliminates funding for them (aside from the costs of contract close out). The reasons for cancellation include: weapons are costing more than expected or what can be afforded, are underperforming, or there are better alternatives. In response, Congress, or certain members of Congress, do not agree with the executive branch's decision for a range of reasons -- from legitimate disagreements to jobs connected with these programs in their districts or states to campaign contributions from interested parties. In the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or in the defense appropriations bill, Congress seeks to maintain funding for these programs, bucking the executive. The White House fires back sometimes, in extreme cases threatening to veto the bill in question, as it did in July 2009 when Congress tried to keep the F-22 Raptor program alive.

This is happening right now with the current House of Representatives-version of the NDAA (H.R. 1960). The White House issued its statement of administration policy (SAP) yesterday on the bill, highlighting weapons programs it would like to kill, curtail, or stop from starting, but that the bill would fund. For instance, "In this fiscally constrained environment, the Administration objects to the addition of unnecessary funding, for example $168 million of unrequested increased authorization for the M-1 Abrams tank, and to the authorization of $135.1 million of unrequested funding to procure and to field additional Light Utility Helicopters. The requirement for U.S. tanks will be fulfilled in December 2014, and the Army will not need to begin recapitalization of the Abrams tank fleet until the 2019 time frame."

In addition, according to the White House the House NDAA:

  • Requires "the Missile Defense Agency to construct and make operational an additional homeland defense site, ignores possible alternatives, ignores fiscal constraints, presumes a validated military requirement for a third U.S.-based missile defense site when none exists";
  • "Would prohibit the cancellation or modification of the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP), and to the authorization of $47 million for Low Rate Initial Production kit procurement for the C-130 AMP. Retaining AMP would cost $1.6 billion within the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and an additional $1.1 billion after the FYDP to complete. DOD plans to cancel the C-130AMP in part because there is a less expensive solution"; and
  • Requires "the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a follow-on air-launched cruise missile to the AGM-86 that achieves initial operating capability for both conventional and nuclear missions by 2030. There is currently no requirement or funding in the Long Range Standoff Weapon program, to develop and field a conventional variant."

For many critics of defense spending, these examples are among the most poignant representatives of Pentagon pork. Even the DOD doesn't want these programs, but Congress thinks otherwise. On the other hand, there have been moments where Congress has foisted programs upon the DOD over its objections that have turned into successes. Many cite Congress's support of the Predator drone program over the opposition of the Air Force fighter pilot-dominated bureaucracy as one example, notwithstanding one's views on how these drones have actually been used.

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