WASHINGTON, D.C. – A mid-year budget review between the Defense Department and congressional committees could be the first step to improve relations between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill over spending, the chair of the commission charged with recommending ways to streamline the process told reporters on Monday.
When the budget is first presented, “an avalanche of information” is sent to Congress, but that slows down with additional data that is often late and incomplete, said Robert Hale, a former Defense Department comptroller.
The mid-year review is something that could be implemented quickly, he added. “We’re not waiting for the final report [due out in March] to sell” recommendations that can be acted immediately to congressional staff and senior Pentagon leaders. At the same time, it allows congressional members to give feedback.
Right now, the idea is still in the crawl step, if using a crawl-walk-run analogy, said Ellen Lord, vice chair of the comission and former top DoD acquisition official. She had “high expectations” for acceptance of many of the PPBE Reform Commission recommendations.
The congressionally-created commission recommends the mid-year review in its interim report.
“The budget proposal portion of this briefing would provide all the congressional defense, intelligence and military construction committee with the same information about new events and program status changes that would effect their review of the budget, perhaps including innovation opportunities,” reads the report.
While the existing system has strengths, the commission’s goal is to be “better able to foster innovation and adapt more quickly” to changes in the security environment like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive use of “gray zone tactics,” Hale said.
He added the review could also take advantage of innovation opportunities, often coming from firms not usually doing business with the Pentagon, that did not exist or were unknown when the budget was in its planning phase.
In the interim report, the commissioners wrote, they are “considering several alternatives to modify reprogramming authorities and policies such as authorizing below threshold reprogrammings at the account level and speeding up new start approvals.”
“The idea is to give [program managers and program executive officers] flexibility and retain [congressional] oversight,” reads the report.
As part of the commission’s work in the past six months, it studied how budgeting and buying works in China and Russia and with allies like Australia and Canada with democratic parliamentary governments. The commission also looked at other federal agencies like NASA and the Director of National Intelligence for ideas that could benefit the Pentagon.
Speaking Tuesday to the Defense Writers Group, Lord said the commission is looking to “take what works and streamline it” in the Planning, Programming, Budget Execution Process [PPBE].
She stressed to make this system work data transmission has to be moved back and forth in the same protected ways publicly-traded corporations transmit sensitive information “so as not to affect markets.” Communications between the Pentagon and Congress “must be much more data-driven,” Lord said.
She said this would be one way “to bring modern technology to the Building [Pentagon] and the Congress.”
Lord and Hale said this could speed fielding of new technologies and systems. Other ways to speed the process could come from consolidating how items of similar nature move through the Research, Development and Technology and Evaluation.
“Many small companies can’t wait 18 months” to find out if they are now a “program of record,” included in the budget, Lord added.
However, there likely would be pushback on Capitol Hill in losing oversight of spending, Lord said.
Predictability for the defense industrial base comes from the longer-term than a single-year budget parliamentary democracies use for their programs, Lord said.
The timing of the review in June or July would coincide with the existing reprogramming sessions between Congress and the department.
While not a budget amendment, the review could assist the committees in their mark-ups of the authorization and appropriations bills to know which programs are moving faster or slower than expected, Hale added. Meeting in a secure location, the review would be led by the Pentagon comptroller with the services’ sending representatives and the committees’ key staffers.
“It would also move the budget closer to strategy,” Lord said.
When asked if the review would reduce the number of “requests for information” coming from Capitol, both were doubtful. The report notes, “there is no incentive for congressional staff to decrease the number of questions they ask.”
Hale said in the six months of the panel’s work the commissioners feel there “is some appetite and willingness” to change in Pentagon and Congress.
“The whole ecosystem [in DoD and Congress] has been working on this issue” of how to speed defense business practices to encourage innovation that can be fielded more quickly, Lord added.