Pentagon workers say that despite Defense Department warnings for non-essential personnel to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, mundane bureaucratic work on next year’s budget has kept some employees in the building unnecessarily and distracted senior military leaders from focusing on immediate virus response.
On Thursday, senior leaders in charge of the Army, Air Force and Navy budgets asked Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist to delay a June 1 deadline for the early budget plans for fiscal year 2022, Defense One has learned.
Norquist responded by asking the service leaders to come up with other ways to ease their workload — including potentially canceling the submission altogether, a spokesman for Norquist said.
Until the pandemic arrived, the Pentagon’s 2022 budget process had been proceeding on an accelerated schedule some officials said is typical of election years. Hundreds of military and civilian officials across the service branches and the Office of Secretary of Defense had been assembling the Defense Department’s nearly three-quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar request, known within the military as the program objective memorandum. This POM will be sent later in the year to the White House, which will make its final decisions and send the presidential budget request to Congress no earlier than February.
“The POM can wait,” said one defense official involved in crafting the budget who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Top U.S. Defense Department leaders have spent the past two weeks assuring the public and their own service members that the Pentagon was on top of the coronavirus, protecting its own people, and supporting the nation-wide effort to help contain the disease.
But service members working in the Pentagon have argued that not enough is being done to protect them from the spread of the virus. As of Friday, there have been at least four positive cases of COVID-19 among individuals who regularly work in the Pentagon, including two people who work on the Joint Staff, according to reads-outs of internal briefings obtained by Defense One.
As Pentagon leaders have increased health protection levels and restrictions on entering the building, senior leaders alongside teams of number crunchers from each military branch are still scrambling to finish the election-year budget planning .
Trying to meet that accelerated deadline has kept senior leaders from focusing on the department’s coronavirus response, stretching them thin amid a crisis, said an Army official close to the planning process.
The first defense official working on the budget said that meeting the June 1 deadline has kept personnel coming into the building to work, even as senior officials urge many to work from home as much as possible to limit the spread of the virus, especially within the Pentagon.
“The fiscal year 2022 program objective memorandum is what most of us here in the building are working on right now,” the defense official said.
If Trump wins reelection, his budget request would likely be delivered to Congress next February. But if a Democrat wins the White House in the November presidential election, history shows the incoming administration would make changes to align with its political priorities, and the Pentagon would not send the fiscal 2022 spending request to lawmakers until even later into next spring.
It’s unclear how delaying the current budget planning would affect daily staffing at the Pentagon, which is currently hovering just under 5,000 people. The Army official said pushing back the deadline would little affect the overall number of people in the building.
But in an effort to keep senior leaders focused on the COVID-19 response, the Army and the Air Force have asked to move the deadline to July 31; the Navy has asked to move it to at least mid-June. Proponents of pushing the deadline say it would be a simple way to lighten the load on senior officials.
“We would have been on track for that had it not been for the inefficiencies of teleworking and other COVID-19 slow-downs,” the defense official said. “To me, it’s the easiest lever that can be switched right now. Let’s drop back and do last year’s schedule.”
The decision of whether to delay the planning now sits with Norquist, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian.
“The deputy believes it is not enough to simply delay the submissions — all that does is move the same amount of work to the right on the calendar,” Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a spokesman for Norquist, told Defense One on Friday. “He has asked the services to develop better, more aggressive, more creative options to streamline the program/budget process, to include canceling the June POM submission altogether.”
Service members familiar with work on the budget requests say that some staff have been coming into the building because their home internet connections are too slow and Pentagon software too unwieldy for efficient work.
“They really didn’t start thinking about teleworking until two weeks ago and quickly discovered there aren’t enough laptops to work from home, people have major issues with our email access out of the building,” the defense official said. “The Microsoft Outlook web access is ‘90s technology that lets you dial in. I can’t get my email working!”
“None of us were really telework-ready,” another defense official who does not work directly on the budget said. “The IT side of it was not capable of handling this load [although] they are rapidly expanding it this week.”
Even if the technical problems were resolved, current and former officials familiar with the process say that most of the real work happens in meetings classified as “Secret” or higher, and on a secure network that staff can’t access remotely.
There is another option to ease the strain on the building: Pentagon leaders are weighing upgrading the Pentagon’s health protection status to its highest level, HPCON-D, a move that would restrict access to “mission essential” personnel only. Senior budget officials in the service branches have pushed Norquist to consider POM staff non-mission essential. That would essentially push “pause” on budget efforts indefinitely.
On Thursday, just under 5,000 people had swiped into the building by 9:30 a.m., about 20 percent of staff who arrive for a normal workday.