ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
What would be the impact on the armed forces if the spending bill were not signed promptly?
We're going to put that question now to Christopher Hellman, who studies the Pentagon budget as a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; that's a Washington think tank. Welcome to the program.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HELLMAN (Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation): Thank you.
SIEGEL: Let's assume the president vetoes the Defense Spending Bill - that's the supplemental bill - because of the language about withdrawal from Iraq. Would American servicemen and women in fact do without some things or be endangered if they're in harm's way because there is no spending bill?
Mr. HELLMAN: Well, there is no immediate danger that troops will have to do without, particularly troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the fact is, is that the longer this goes on, the military will find itself borrowing from itself to cover the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and that will have a pressure on other areas of the Pentagon budget.
So they will be doing this borrowing with the expectation that at some point they'll be reimbursed with a supplemental appropriation. But you can't do that forever.
SIEGEL: I'd like to play for you a recording of what Defense Secretary Gates said last week about the potential impact of a veto battle over defense spending. Here's what he said.
Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense): If the supplemental is not passed by April 15th, the service will be forced to consider the following kinds of actions. One, curtailing and suspending home station training for reserve and guard units. Two, slowing the training of units slated to deploy next to Iraq and Afghanistan. Three, cutting the funding for the upgrade or renovation of barracks and other facilities that support quality of life for troops and their families. And fourth, stopping the repair of equipment necessary to support pre-deployment training.
SIEGEL: That's what Secretary Gates said. Chris Hellman, what does it sound like to you, that list?
Mr. HELLMAN: Well, it's a very reasonable list, because the one area where the Pentagon has traditionally borrowed from itself in the past while it was awaiting approval of supplementals is the accounts known as the operations and maintenance accounts. And those deal very directly with providing funding for training and the upkeep and maintenance of both infrastructure and equipment.
SIEGEL: I want you to explain this notion here that what the Congress is dealing with right now is a supplemental spending bill. Before that, there was an actual appropriations for the Department of Defense.
Mr. HELLMAN: Right. What the supplemental process does is recognize that the annual budget process that all federal agencies go through is such a long one - in the case of the Pentagon it can take up to two or two and a half years to generate a one-year budget - that you can't possibly plan for every eventuality as you go through this process.
The example I like to give is if you had looked at August of 2001 and said we'd be involved in a shooting war in Afghanistan within three months, nobody would've believed you. So obviously you couldn't have budgeted for that. So supplementals allow you to add money for unexpected contingencies outside of the normal budget process.
SIEGEL: So $122 billion as a supplemental is a lot of money by any other standard, but by the standard of the Defense Department budget?
Mr. HELLMAN: Well, it represents probably about a fifth or a sixth of what we're currently spending. The request for the coming fiscal year is about $500 billion. On top of that, they are requesting an additional $142 billion for continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year. So it's about a fifth.
SIEGEL: How close have we come to this happening before; that is, a supplemental not being approved in a timely fashion?
Mr. HELLMAN: Well, we've had delays and - but they've usually been logistical delays. This one is unique because the delay is caused not by Congress not getting its act together and working a timely fashion, but it's over a very specific policy issue.
SIEGEL: Something of substance in these bills, the call for a withdrawal.
Mr. HELLMAN: Exactly. And that is a very different kettle of fish, because politically supplementals have traditionally been very non-controversial. The military has always had broad support on Capitol Hill in times of war. And members of Congress have found it very difficult to vote against supplemental appropriations when men and women are in the field risking their lives. What has made this debate different is the inclusion of this policy issue.
SIEGEL: Well, let's think ahead for a while, and in the worst case, which is that the Democrats on Capitol Hill do agree to language on a withdrawal from Iraq, the president vetoes it and there simply is no bill at all. How long until people in the Defense Department, in the armed services really start noticing a difference in their lives?
Mr. HELLMAN: Well, Secretary Gates said April 15th. I think that's probably slightly alarmist. I've heard the end of April, I've heard the end of May. But the fact the matter is, is that it can't go on forever. And at some point in time, both the administration and Congress are going to have to get together and agree on something that they can do because the flexibility that the Pentagon has to transfer funds within its budget is finite.
SIEGEL: Christopher Hellman, thank you very much.
Mr. HELLMAN: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Mr. Hellman studies the Pentagon budget as a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
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