Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the budget request for the Department of Defense. At this hearing, Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey and Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Robert Hale testified on the defense program proposals in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget. In addition to questioning Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey about the impact of sequestration on the Department’s ability to perform their national security duties, Murray also pushed them to address the tragic epidemic of sexual assault among the ranks, and the work being done to provide mental healthcare to service members and their families.
Secretary Hagel stated in his testimony that sequestration has put many important Department of Defense programs at risk, including those which keep forces combat-ready, “With military pay and benefits exempt from the sequester, and our internal decision to shift the impact of sequestration away from those serving in harm’s way, the cuts fall heavily on DoD’s operations, maintenance and modernization accounts that we use to train and equip those who will deploy in the future… While we have protected spending to sustain the war effort and defend America’s vital strategic interests, the Department’s day-to-day activities will be significantly disrupted for the remainder of the fiscal year. Each of the military services has begun to significantly reduce training and maintenance of non-deployed operating forces – steps that are having effects on military readiness.”
General Dempsey testified that sequestration and budget uncertainty threaten national security interests and challenges commitments made to service members and their families, “When budget uncertainty is combined with the mechanism and magnitude of sequestration, the consequences lead to a security gap – vulnerability against future threats to our national security interests. And, as our military power becomes less sustainable, it becomes less credible. We risk breaking commitments to our partners and allies, our defense industrial base, and our men and women in uniform and their families.”
Key excerpts from Murray’s opening statement:
“I am also very concerned about the effects sequestration is having now and I am even more concerned about the long-term impact it will have if we can’t come together to replace it… Democrats agree that sequestration is a terrible way to cut defense spending the same way it’s a terrible way to cut spending on education, health care, and other national investments”
“…Republican brinksmanship is how we ended up with sequestration in the first place. Continuing to manufacture crises is the only way to make the situation worse for the defense budget. Refusing to work together or compromise will force the Pentagon to deal with strict, across the board sequester cuts in future years, instead of the relative flexibility they would have in meeting lower spending limits under a budget and appropriations bills enacted through regular order.”
“I want to be clear—I join the President, Leader Reid and others in this—we are not going to negotiate over the debt limit. The United States is not going to default on our debt—and we aren’t going to let Republicans play political games with the global economy. We are still trying to fix the problems that were caused the last time they tried that in 2011—and we can’t allow it to happen again.”
“Our service members volunteer to face danger, to put their lives on the line, to protect the country and our people. But there are some dangers that cannot be accepted, and none of our courageous service members should ever have to face. Sexual assault has no place in our military, and it goes against everything our services stand for.”
”We also need to improve our understanding of suicide and efforts to prevent it…This is an absolute tragedy, not only because of how many we have had this year, but because each year the number of suicides continues to go up. Hometowns should never be more lethal than the battlefield, and we will be working to turn this around.”
Chairman Murray’s opening statement:
“Welcome to the Senate Budget Committee hearing on the fiscal year 2014 budget request for the Department of Defense. I want to thank Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, and Under Secretary Hale for being here this morning.
“The President has requested $526.6 billion in funding for DoD, with one third going to operations, one third going to personnel costs, and the remaining third used for investments. The President also requested an additional $79.4 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding for DoD.
“While the base budget request is essentially flat-lined, the Department is in a complicated position. They are: finally ending the war in Afghanistan, implementing a new national security strategy, executing the pivot to Asia, and preparing for a range of potential problems including North Korea, Iran, Syria, and the ungoverned spaces and extreme poverty that breed conflict. All of this has to be done with limited resources, while facing continued sequestration.
“Secretary Hagel, clearly you have a difficult task in front of you.
“A wide range of options have been put forward by many different groups to help meet these strategic goals while dealing with the budget constraints. None of them are easy, but I look forward to discussing them today. I am especially interested in the findings of your Strategic Choices and Management Review.
“I also want to highlight one of the Department’s challenges in particular. After ending the war in Iraq, we are also finally winding down the war in Afghanistan. As we close out these campaigns it is appropriate to draw down the funding that will no longer be needed. But this must be done responsibly, by finding the right balance between capabilities and capacity. At the same time, Congress needs to begin the process of modifying and repealing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.
“Overall, I support the President’s commitment to that end. But this discussion is still in the early stages. We need to be sure that when we are ready to roll back the authorization, there is an appropriate and effective legal framework in its place.
“The new laws must be flexible enough to deal with rapidly changing events and our continuing efforts to protect the country from terrorists and atypical threats, while pulling back authorities that are only appropriate during war-time.
“As we prepare for that discussion, I am very concerned about the effects sequestration is having now and I am even more concerned about the long-term impact it will have if we can’t come together to replace it.
“Civilian defense employees are being furloughed. The Air Force has now grounded 31 squadrons, and by the end of the fiscal year two-thirds of Navy ships and squadrons will not be combat ready. And the Marine Corps believes a little less than half its combat units will not be combat ready by the end of the year which is troubling to hear from the nation’s forces expected to respond to any situation at a second’s notice. This shouldn’t be difficult.
“Our colleague Senator McCain has called sequestration ‘devastating’ to our military.
“Speaker Boehner has talked about how it would ‘hollow our military.’
“Democrats agree sequestration is a terrible way to cut defense spending the same way it’s a terrible way to cut spending on education, health care, and other national investments.
“That is why the Senate budget takes a measured and fair approach to completely replace the sequester with a balanced mix of revenue and spending cuts. And it’s why I believe one of our highest priorities right now should be coming together to get this done for the American people.
“We could be well on our way to a compromise budget resolution, but it has now been 81 days since the Senate passed our budget resolution. Since then, Senate Republican leadership and a minority of Senators have held the process hostage.
“Let’s be clear. Their obstructionism not only defies common sense, but it is dangerous.
“I just described some of the serious ways sequestration threatens our national security – and I imagine we will hear about more of them today. Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey—we know these cuts will make it incredibly hard for you and our men and women in uniform to protect the county.
“That is why Democrats have gone to the floor of the Senate 12 times to ask consent to go to conference so we can move forward with fully replacing the sequester in order to protect our men and women in combat and our future readiness. We have been joined by Republicans like Senator McCain and Senator Collins and many more have expressed public opposition to their leadership’s obstruction. But each time we have been blocked.
“We want to do the right thing – talk and debate the issues with our House counterparts openly, and following the regular order. Republicans have spent years saying the biggest problem was the Senate not passing a budget, but now that we’ve passed one, they are running away from regular order as quickly as they can.
“This is especially disappointing to me since Republican brinksmanship is how we ended up with sequestration in the first place. Continuing to manufacture crises is the only way to make the situation worse for the defense budget. Refusing to work together or compromise will force the Pentagon to deal with strict, across the board sequester cuts in future years, instead of the relative flexibility they would have in meeting lower spending limits under a budget and appropriations bills enacted through regular order. So I am hopeful Republicans end their latest push toward brinksmanship and join us at the table in a budget conference under regular order.
“And I want to be clear—I join the President, Leader Reid and others in this—we are not going to negotiate over the debt limit. The United States is not going to default on our debt—and we aren’t going to let Republicans play political games with the global economy. We are still trying to fix the problems that were caused the last time they tried that in 2011—and we can’t allow it to happen again.
“To that end the Senate budget resolution calls for $552 billion in discretionary defense funding in fiscal year 14, and for $5.9 trillion over ten years. The resolution also includes several reserve funds that allow for additional funding, so long as it is offset appropriately. The Senate amount is significantly higher than the sequester levels, as well as the major bipartisan budget plans like the Simpson-Bowles commission.
“Now, after years of growth in the base defense budget – from $287.4 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $527.5 billion in fiscal year 2013 – these reductions in growth will be significant. But they can be accomplished hand in hand with our military strategy and our need to ensure readiness for the current and future threats. There are still options available to meet these spending targets. I hope we can work together to budget for the Defense Department, with a focus on real threats, real needs, and common sense.
“The Department needs to be reexamining how it can get the effects it needs as efficiently as possible, continue efforts to improve procurement to control costs and reduce waste, and work with Congress to determine how to balance force-structure, modernization, readiness, and care for service members and families.
“Most importantly, the Senate’s defense level is also part of an overall framework that would take a balanced, fair, and responsible approach to our budget by raising revenues, finding mandatory spending savings, and by cutting both defense and non-defense discretionary spending.
“On the other hand, the House approach is absolutely the wrong way to go.
“In order to keep defense spending at the pre-sequester levels, Congressman Ryan’s plan slashes other key areas of the budget. For example – international affairs funding – which is a vital part of our overall national security efforts – would be gutted under the House budget.
“Marine Corps Major General James Mattis recently testified, ‘If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately.’
“He is absolutely right, and I am very concerned that this type of unbalanced approach could have serious consequences.
“Aside from the budget differences, there are several policy areas that we need to address. Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, I know you agree that the greatest strength of our military is the character and dedication of our men and women who wear the uniform.
“Our service members volunteer to face danger, to put their lives on the line, to protect the country and our people. But there are some dangers that cannot be accepted, and none of our courageous service members should ever have to face. Sexual assault has no place in our military, and it goes against everything our services stand for.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that a fellow service member, the person you trust to have your back and to be there for you, would commit such a terrible crime. Even worse is the prevalence of these crimes. The number of sexual assault cases has increased by more than a third since 2010. And of the estimated 26,000 cases in 2012, less than 3,000 service members reported those crimes.
“Of those who bravely came forward to report the abuse, an astounding 62 percent of them were retaliated against in one way or another. That is absolutely unacceptable.
“Equally troubling are the multiple reports of these crimes being committed by the very people those who were responsible for preventing sexual assaults and helping victims. In fact, just last Saturday we learned the Army suspended the general in command of all Army forces in Japan over allegations that he failed in his duties to report and investigate a sexual assault.
“This is an appalling situation that seems to get worse by the day. We need a cultural overhaul. We need to create a system where the protection and safety of victims is unquestionable. A system where those who commit these crimes and those who allow for this behavior are punished.
“Secretary Hagel, you have taken some steps to help combat these terrible betrayals of trust, and we appreciate those. But it is also time for Congress to act on legislation to give victims the protections they deserve to seek justice, and which gives the Pentagon the tools to deal with this growing crisis.
“I believe the solution starts with a dedicated legal counsel – specifically for victims – that is with them every step of the way through what is a deeply personal and painful process. That is exactly what Senator Ayotte and I have proposed in bipartisan legislation. And I want to thank Senator Ayotte for being such an outstanding partner and for all she has done to push this bill forward.
“In addition to endorsements from important groups like the Service Women’s Action Network and the Military Officers’ Association, we now have 37 cosponsors and strong support from both parties. That should tell you we’re doing the right thing.
“Our bill, the Combatting Military Sexual Assault Act, is aggressive and effective. It makes critical improvements to attack this unconscionable issue from several angles: it empowers victims with special military lawyers to help guide them through the legal process, it prohibits sexual contact between instructors and trainees during basic training to ensure the terrible things we saw at places like Lackland Air Force Base and Aberdeen Proving Grounds will not happen again.
“The bill ensures members of the National Guard and Reserves always have access to sexual assault response coordinators, and finally, it would ensure sexual assault charges receive fair, thorough consideration, sending them to only the highest courts-martial. This will ensure that no individual member of the chain of command can misuse their authority to deny justice and hurt the victim.
“The provisions of this bill were put together very carefully. I believe it works with the steps you and the services are taking. It will be very effective, and will get to the heart of the sexual assault problem. This is the legislation that is workable and will make a difference.
“General Dempsey, I was pleased to see you give your support to the central provision of our bill – providing Special Victims’ Counsels to victims of sexual assault – during the SASC hearing last week.
“In addition to combating sexual assault, there is still much work to be done in providing adequate mental health care to our service members and their families.
“I am pleased to see in your testimony that the Department’s fiscal year 14 request would protect funding for mental health care. There are several different initiatives to expand access to care, including some being piloted in my home state of Washington. I look forward to hearing more from you about the effectiveness of these different programs and which should be expanded to help more service members.
“One of the key initiatives that needs to stay on track is the DoD-wide review of mental health care which I asked Secretary Panetta to begin. A similar review by the Army has provided important lessons, though I still have some concerns. Completing the DoD-wide review should identify gaps in care and improvements that need to be made. The findings of that review should help the Department make sure the process is consistent, diagnoses are accurate, and appropriate policies are in place. Secretary Hagel, as we discussed yesterday, this review needs to be completed soon. I look forward to hearing from you regularly about the progress you are making.
“We also need to improve our understanding of suicide and efforts to prevent it. The Army recently released data showing there have already been 109 potential suicides this year – in the Army alone – compared to 49 Army casualties in Afghanistan. This is an absolute tragedy, not only because of how many we have had this year, but because each year the number of suicides continues to go up.
“Hometowns should never be more lethal than the battlefield, and we will be working to turn this around.
“Developing a seamless transition is another challenge that VA and DoD continue to face, though important progress has been made. This will be even more important as the War in Afghanistan winds to a close and you begin your work to right-size our military forces. I have worked with the Department to make the Transition Assistance Program mandatory. Along with a major overhaul of the curriculum, this has created a much more useful tool to assist service members leaving the military. I look forward to the additional components and improvements that are coming.
“Other requirements to expand job opportunities and eliminate barriers to getting civilian licenses and credentials are key to combatting the unemployment rate for veterans which is still far too high. I would like to hear more from you about what you are doing to collaborate with states and the private sector to bring training and licensing requirements closer together.
“We have made a great deal of progress working with employers to encourage them to hire veterans and I will continue to engage our private sector partners, to help them understand the skills veterans bring to the table, and why they make some of the best employees.
“Helping our service members transition into education programs, good jobs, or starting small businesses doesn’t benefit just the service member. It helps us grow our economy and the middle class. It builds on the investments we have made in our newest veterans, as they continue to help our communities, our businesses, and fellow veterans.
“I want to continue working with you on the significant improvements needed in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System. In particular, this means developing an end-to-end technology solution to get service members through the process quickly and accurately. I wrote to Deputy Secretary Carter in June of last year calling for the Departments to develop a solution, but this goal is still a very long way off and there are other steps to improve the process that we will work with VA on – such as ensuring they provide sufficient exams for P-E-B decisions.
“I am also concerned about the effort to develop systems to allow communication between VA and DoD’s medical records.
“Clearly the best option would have been a single joint electronic health record system that is open-source. This would have been the most effective solution and would have revolutionized the market, but the Department has backed away from that goal.
“I think everyone in this room is concerned you spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars – and thousands of staff hours over the last few years –trying to create an integrated IT platform with the VA only to announce you were unable to come to a solution.
“Now I know there are significant questions about how to move forward, but I expect that you and Secretary Shinseki will clearly define a plan and ensure leadership remains behind this important project. The lack of seamless integration between our two largest Departments is one of the most critical areas to address in order to reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and ensure our service members and their families get the care they need and deserve.
“Overall, considering the serious budget challenges we face, now more than ever we must finally have effective collaboration between DoD and VA.
“It is not easy to get the government’s two largest bureaucracies to work together efficiently. That is a common theme in many of the areas I just discussed. It will require your direct attention, including evaluating whether the entities tasked with overseeing VA-DoD collaboration are effective. But with a former Deputy Administrator of VA as the Defense Secretary, and with a former Chief of Staff of the Army leading VA, we should be well positioned to make progress.
“With that, thank you both very much for being here and for your service to the country.
“I’ll now call on Ranking Member Sessions for his opening statement.”