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Is It Too Late for Obama to Tackle Pentagon Budgeting?

I keep getting sidetracked on this, but Colin Clark at DOD Buzz had a provocative post the other day about how President Obama has already missed his chance at reforming the Pentagon budget. Basically, the trouble all began by leaving Bob Gates in place as defense secretary. Compounding the problem is time:

Obama’s administration does not have time on its side should it want to install its own people and make substantial changes to Pentagon spending. If you look at the calendar, things are mighty tight. The 2010 budget has been largely finished for months. While the administration may be making important long-term choices about a few big programs with little immediate military impact such as Future Combat System for the 2010 budget, the fact is few substantial changes can be made to the military budget this late in the game.

That leaves the administration with the 2011 budget, already in the early stages of being built. This budget can be changed substantially, but it is the services who drive the budget, for better or for worse. And the services don’t look likely to get new secretaries for another three to six months. With actings and deputies reluctant to move on anything controversial, the leaves the services playing serious catch-up should Obama decide to substantially remake the 2011 budget.

I don’t know. For one thing, a Pentagon official told me recently that the services have been largely shut out of Gates’ fiscal 2010 budget review, precisely for this reason. Everyone knows where the services stand on procurement priorities already. That’s not to say they have no input, just that they have less input than is typical. Gates keeps on talking about hard procurement choices, and it’s hard to understand why he’d do that if he just intends to cave to the services. With the caveat that any reform of a huge institution takes time, let’s see the budget before, at least, declaring things hopeless.

On the other hand, it sends a huge business-as-usual message to have a former chief Raytheon lobbyist as deputy secretary. Even if Bill Lynn is the world’s greatest manager, for an administration so rhetorically bent on good-government cleanliness and transparency to put a defense lobbyist in such a senior position must have been a huge sigh of relief to defense contractors. Attention now turns to prospective Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter, who has significantly fewer ties to defense contractors than is typical for an acquisitions chief, but that pick appears, at least in part, like a way of mitigating the damage that Lynn caused to the Obama luster.

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