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Ploys Avoid Serious Reductions : Pentagon Budget Cutters Encounter a Bag of Tricks

January 17, 1988|MELISSA HEALY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon's civilian leaders pored over $33 billion worth of spending cuts proposed recently by the Army, Navy and Air Force for the 1989 budget, they found themselves grappling with a bag of tricks known to veteran bureaucrats as "gold watches," "Washington monuments" and "pet rocks."

These are ploys long used by the military services--and other government agencies as well--to comply with orders for budget reductions without actually risking serious cutbacks. What the admirals and generals do is propose to cut back or eliminate things they know the White House or friendly members of Congress can be counted on to rescue before the budget ax really falls.

Ironically, at a time when the government's ability to get a tighter grip on spending has become a crucial factor in the economic future of the whole country, the Reagan Administration is particularly vulnerable to such game playing because of management strategies adopted years ago by Caspar W. Weinberger and continued by his successor as secretary of defense, Frank C. Carlucci.

Under a system called "decentralized management," Weinberger and now Carlucci cede to the military services much of the initiative in proposing budget priorities and recommending specific cuts. The Pentagon's civilian leadership parcels out overall budget targets and ceilings, issues broad directives and then waits to react to the services' proposals.

"In past administrations, the Pentagon's top civilians have issued specific orders to the services," dictating which programs should be reduced and which priorities protected, said Lawrence Korb, a senior defense official in the opening years of the Reagan Administration. "You need a strong analytical arm in the office of the secretary of defense" if an Administration hopes to impose its priorities on uniformed services with agendas of their own, Korb added.

Weinberger instituted his system to avoid what he saw as excessive intrusion by civilians into the domain of military experts. And as long as the Reagan Administration arms buildup was surging ahead, there were relatively few difficulties.

Tide of Spending Ebbs

The problem is that now, as the tide of military spending has crested and begun to ebb, the Pentagon's civilian leaders face a struggle to regain control.

Driven by its own internal priorities and traditions, each service tends to protect and push for the programs it considers most important--the Navy its aircraft carriers, for example, and the Air Force its bombers--with little regard for whether all of the pieces fit together into a coordinated, efficient and affordable system of national defense.

In theory, it is the task of the defense secretary and his top civilian assistants to impose the larger perspective on the overall defense budget.

But Weinberger not only altered the budgeting system to strengthen the services' role, he also reduced the role of civilian analysts and defense specialists whose task it is to help the defense secretary and his aides make independent judgments about the services' detailed spending blueprints.

Tough Choices

And without a strong staff of his own experts, defense specialists say, a defense secretary is at a serious disadvantage in the complex disputes that inevitably break out when tough choices must be made about which programs to push and which to curb.

One of Weinberger's earliest moves at the Pentagon, for instance, was to downgrade the status of the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, a civilian unit that had worked to impose greater discipline on military budget-makers for 20 years. Established in 1961 by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and continued through the Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford administrations in an effort to impose stronger civilian authority over the Pentagon's military brass, the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation was stripped of its once-powerful voice in shaping the services' spending priorities.

In the Jimmy Carter Administration, the civilian analysts--much hated by the services--had succeeded in canceling the B-1 bomber and sent the Navy packing when it proposed to build a 600-ship fleet designed to attack Soviet home ports. Under Weinberger, many of the analysts' victories were quickly overturned.

Organizational Essence

Granted sweeping budgetary latitude, "the military services will make every effort to preserve what they see as their organizational essence, and that doesn't always make sense in the long term," Korb noted.

Said Gordon Adams, the director of the Washington-based Defense Budget Project, a citizen watchdog group: "The Weinberger Pentagon has let the services have their head. And there's still a very strong urge in the services to have it all."

The result of all this, say longtime observers of military budgets, is that Congress and the Pentagon are likely to deadlock later this year over how to achieve the Pentagon spending cuts laid out in a White House-congressional compromise reached last November.

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