WASHINGTON — House Republicans launched their first formal attacks on the fiscal 2010 defense budget Wednesday, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his staff defended their "reform budget" proposal at the Capitol.
Last week Pentagon officials unveiled details of the $663-billion-plus plan, including more specifics on cuts to major weapons systems announced in February. The proposal starts to move some costs connected to overseas operations into the annual base budget, and puts more emphasis on counterinsurgency operations than past plans.
But Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee argued Gates has provided few specific justifications for his sweeping changes and imposed what lawmakers called "gag orders" on budget planners to prevent them from discussing details of the process before this week.
"While it’s undeniable that you’re taking the department in a different direction, the problem is that the Congress has not had the benefit of reviewing the analysis and data to determine how your decisions will take the department in the best direction possible," committee ranking member Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., told Gates.
The Defense Secretary was unapologetic. Upcoming hearings will provide time to explain and justify the moves, he said, and Congress’ role in the budgeting process doesn’t begin until after the White House and Pentagon set their priorities.
"The only reason [lawmakers] have been included earlier in the past is because that building leaks like a sieve," Gates said. "It seemed to me to have a coherent approach we needed to be able to do that without any leaks."
The House and Senate usually begin their budget review in February, but the inauguration and the changes proposed by Gates delayed the process by three months. Hearings with the service chiefs and key Pentagon personnel on the budget usually start in March, but now will be on a compressed schedule.
Gates reiterated Wednesday that the budget was constructed to meet future strategic needs, not to meet fiscal targets or savings.
But GOP lawmakers questioned that, saying that defense officials still haven’t provided them with the future years’ projections and unfunded mandates lists that typically accompany the budget. McHugh called it "a series of decisions whose only unifying theme is that the aggregate fits within the top line."
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said plans to stop building F-22 Raptors and cut back the planned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet could jeopardize Air Force and Air Guard readiness. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, argued that "by cutting future programs, we’re cutting our ingenuity."
Democrats on the committee were more accommodating, but hinted that they expected more information and cooperation from the Pentagon in coming weeks.
Gates promised that his staff has been told to work with Congress and "speak with candor" now that the budget documents are public. Lawmakers said they’re optimistic that the budget can be approved by the start of fiscal 2010, Oct. 1.