The Great Reprogramming Flap failed to generate much excitement when it rose out of the political muck last February 26. How could anything so procedural and dull-sounding possibly be very important?
The specific news was an announcement by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) that his House Armed Services Committee would not consider a Pentagon request to transfer some money-- the total amount to be spent was never in question--from one defense budget account to another.
The yawning stopped, however, long before the flap ground to a halt 102 days later. By then, it had created hardship and career uncertainty for 210,000 military members and recruits, who awaited the outcome in suspense as the months rolled by.
Had the impasse continued a few days more, the Department of Defense would have begun terminating 90,000 enlisted and officer accessions, involuntarily separating 40,000 active-duty members, freezing 50,000 promotions, and delaying 30,000 change-of-station moves.
We should remember the Great Reprogramming Flap, not only as a case study in how government is not supposed to work but also because conditions are ripe for a repeat performance next year.
According to Mr. Aspin, the trouble all started last fall when the politicians were negotiating Fiscal Year 1990 budget reductions to meet limits imposed by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act.
The Bush Administration--unlike the Reagan Administration before it-- did not declare ahead of time its intent to shield military personnel somewhat by absorbing heavier reductions in other defense budget accounts. The maneuver effectively limited the number of line-item reductions the Administration had to concede in its negotiating.
When Congress and the Administration reached a compromise on FY 1990 outlays, everyone recognized that the military personnel account was seriously underfunded. Congress said in November that it expected the Pentagon to send up a request to shift money from other defense accounts to cover the shortfall for military personnel.
That reckoned without Mr. Aspin who sprang his surprise in February with almost five months of the fiscal year elapsed. He accused the Administration of "playing chicken" with the budget process, daring Congress to disallow an adjustment that the Administration deliberately did not seek earlier. He dug in his heels, and the 102-day crisis began.
There was an element of truth in Mr. Aspin's accusation. The Administration was playing power games--but so was Congress, and the troops were caught in the middle. The casus belli got a little fuzzy at times. In April, Mr. Aspin's focus turned to "acceptable bill payers." If programs of his choosing were cut, the savings could be reprogrammed into the personnel account, apparently without harm to orderly procedure. In June, he again stated the issue as one of principle, specifically "the integrity of the budget process."
The budget process is manipulated regularly by all political sides and has never functioned in pure form. It does not have enough integrity to warrant a defense on principle. As for integrity in the line-item review, Congress balked last year--mostly for reasons of pork-barrel politics--at a long list of reductions proposed by the Pentagon.
This was a raw contest of political wills. The personnel account was an arena of convenience, and the 210,000 people unfortunate pawns in a game. In a white paper released March 14, the Air Force Association called it "the game that nobody wins."
The whole sorry business finally came to an end June 7 with a compromise engineered by Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D-Wash.). That averted a crisis, but some harm was already done.
When the nation finishes cutting the defense program to its heart's content, the motivation and morale of the force that remains will be vitally important. Basic to that, the troops must believe the system that sustains them is fair and reasonable. The spectacle we have just witnessed undermines that confidence.
This fall, the government faces budget reduction pressures more intense than last years. The conditions that set up the Great Reprogramming Flap of 1990 are still present.
Hard times often require hard decisions. In the days ahead, actions that cause difficulty or hardship for military people may be unavoidable. If so, a government truly committed to integrity will do its utmost to behave with consideration and decency. When the nation's leaders yield instead to the temptation of power struggles and gamesmanship, we all lose.
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