WASHINGTON — For months, even as congressional negotiations have faltered, defense officials have insisted that they aren’t planning for harsh automatic budget cuts slated to go into effect in January because lawmakers will find an alternative solution.
And even though the White House released a 394-page report Friday detailing how billions will be trimmed from individual military spending accounts, defense officials insist they’re still not drawing up plans to implement those cuts.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col Melinda Morgan said the department is working closely with the Office of Management and Budget, but “we have not begun any planning efforts.”
Critics are calling that approach overly optimistic and potentially dangerous.
“For them not to plan for this will make a horrible situation even worse,” said one House Armed Services Committee staffer. “We’re just three months away from these cuts, and we still don’t know if they’ve done any planning.”
The budget cuts, better known as sequestration, were enacted by Congress last summer as part of a larger deficit-reduction plan, but were designed to be so unpalatable to both parties that they’d come up with alternative spending trims to avoid hurting the military.
But no solution has been reached. Congress is unlikely to find a compromise before the end of this week, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington for legislative work until after the November elections.
That would give them only a few weeks to reach a deal and avoid nearly $55 billion in across-the-board spending curbs in January. By then, military budget planners should already be finalizing their fiscal 2014 budget plans.
“It’s not too late for the Defense Department to start planning, but it’s starting to get close,” said David Berteau, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You can manage these cuts, but only if you plan for it. And they certainly aren’t planning for it to the extent they need to.”
Berteau said the spending cuts not only hurt next year’s cash flow for the military but also future year spending based on those figures.
“By refusing to prepare for anything, they make it impossible to implement,” he said.
For now, Pentagon officials say they are focused on avoiding the automatic budget cuts instead of developing contingency budgets.
On Friday, following the sequestration impact report, Pentagon press secretary George Little called the automatic cuts “irresponsible” and repeated that “it is time for Congress to enact a balanced reduction in the deficit and a law halting the entire sequestration.”
Conservative lawmakers insist they’re still working on that, but said the White House’s approach has hurt those efforts, especially regarding the impact of the cuts.
House Armed Services Committee staffers on Friday said many lawmakers remain unconvinced of the need for compromise because they still haven’t seen the program-by-program impact of the cuts.
“It’s pretty difficult for members to make informed decisions about the issue if they don’t fully understand the consequences of sequestration,” another committee staffer said. “It’s hard to create enough urgency to solve the problem.”
It’s unclear whether more urgency could spur compromise, since both Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked since last fall over whether to include new taxes in any compromise.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the impact report shows “the need for members of Congress to compromise on a plan that makes prudent spending cuts and restores revenue is urgent.”
On the other side, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., blasted the president and Democrats for failing to present realistic alternatives to lower the national deficit and prevent a national security disaster.
The White House impact report, echoing a common refrain from administration officials, stated that “no amount of planning can mitigate the significant impact of the sequestration,” emphasizing the need for an alternative plan compromise.
The Defense Department isn’t the only federal agency left in the budgetary limbo. In July, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance to federal agencies instructing them to continue normal spending and operations “to avoid unnecessarily diverting scarce resources.”
Officials there have said they will assist with agency budgeting for sequestration when the time arrives, but so far haven’t indicated when that will be.
Reporter Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.