Here’s What the Services Want from Congress This Year

Jorge Alcala

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After lawmakers pass the budget promised by February’s bipartisan deal, the three secretaries have other priorities for legislative action.

When service leaders visit Capitol Hill, there’s one thing lawmakers always want to know: What can they do to make the Pentagon buy weapons faster? But that’s not what currently needs legislative attention, the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force said Monday.

So what does? Personnel policies, spending timelines for this year’s budget, and a few other things.

Appearing together at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Air Force’s Heather Wilson, Army’s Mark Esper, and Navy’s Richard Spencer laid out what they need this year from Congress, which hasn’t yet passed the 2018 appropriations bill but whose House and Senate Armed Services committees are starting to turn their attention to the 2019 authorization measure.

First up: personnel reform.

Instead of things, think about people. The Army needs to be better about fostering leadership and managing troops, Esper said.

“I want to move more toward a talent management system, where you look at each individual’s knowledge, skills and behaviors, and marry that up to their preferences to meet the Army’s needs. But to do that, I probably will need revisions to [The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act] to make that happen,” he said.

He’s not the only one with personnel reform as a priority. Wilson said it’s needed across the board, and not just on the uniformed side. (This was a major focus of the previous administration’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter, whose efforts foundered on, among other things, Sen. John McCain’s opposition.)

“All of us are dealing with it taking about 130 to 150 days to hire a civilian into the service,” Wilson said. “That doesn’t even come close to what we need to be able to do to get the talent for the services.”

Part of that will be addressing the seemingly interminable process and ever-growing backlog for security clearances, she said. There are currently 710,000 people waiting for their clearances to be approved or denied.

A quick win: flexibility with 2018 funds

After kicking the budget can down the road four times, Congress agreed in February to a two-year funding deal that would give defense $700 billion in 2018. Lawmakers passed another continuing resolution to keep the government open at 2017 levels until March 23 to give themselves time to sort out the specifics.

“We’re really appreciative of what Congress has done with regard to FY18 dollars — the increases are spectacular — but by the time we see those, assuming the bill is passed later this month, I probably won’t see those dollars until April, which only leaves me a few short months to spend it,” Esper said. “[We need] the flexibility to spend those dollars to, in my mind, to make sure we spend it smartly, more effectively.”

Defense hawks on the Hill were pushing for that flexibility even before Congress reached the two-year budget deal last month. Two weeks ago, HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters several options were being considered, including one that would waive existing limits on how much of the annual budget the Pentagon is allowed to spend in the last two months of the fiscal year.

“I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like; we have a number of options,” he said. “But I think there will be some additional flexibility and everybody I know of has been supportive of that. ”

Less is more: Rocks in the rucksack

Sometimes, it’s not about adding something — it’s about removing it. Over the years, defense authorizations have asked for reports and made requirements of the services, adding “rocks in the rucksack” they must carry, Spencer said. It’s time to examine some of those.

“There is no ‘Rock in the Rucksack Removal Officer’ and that is what we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “We told them, ‘Stand by, we will be coming to you saying we’d like to stop the following reports if you in fact agree they do not provide any value. They had value 15 years ago … but they are not contributing to lethality now.’”

A long shot: a pause on organizational restructuring

One thing the officials don’t want? Congressional tinkering with their organizational structure. Wilson, whose service was the target of one of the largest proposed restructurings in years, said the services need a breather from reform. For last year’s defense policy bill, the House had proposed creating a Space Corps, a separate service dedicated to the increasingly contested domain, but housed in the Department of the Air Force. That idea didn’t make it into the final law, but smaller reforms did.

“There’s something they need to pause, which is probably organizational change,” Wilson said. “There’s been a lot of it in the Pentagon, and we just need to let the org chart boxes stay where they are this year and focus on things like personnel reform and some fine-tuning of acquisition.”

The Space Corps may be at least several years off according to the idea’s champions, but that says nothing about other organizational reforms.

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