The Cable

McCain moves to shut down Pentagon’s power to reprogram funds

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is moving to reassert Congressional control over billions of dollars in defense spending that he says the Pentagon has been abusing for years.

McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared Tuesday that he will no longer approve any of the Pentagon's reprogramming requests because, he says, the Defense Department has been abusing that mechanism to fund new programs without Congressional approval or oversight. The Defense Department reprogrammed between $12 and $15 billion in fiscal 2011, according to McCain, and that has to stop.

"The reprogramming process that allows only eight members of Congress to approve funding for new, unauthorized programs violates the traditional authorization and appropriation process," McCain wrote today in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "I will not support any further reprogramming requests for new, unauthorized programs except for emergency requirements."

The eight lawmakers who have the power to approve or disapprove Pentagon reprogramming requests are the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and their counterparts on the corresponding appropriations defense subcommittees.

McCain is not just halting approval of unauthorized new programs. He is also pledging to reject all non-emergency reprogramming requests until the Pentagon gives him a full accounting of every reprogramming action in the Defense Department for 2010 and 2011, including a list of all new programs begun through reprogramming. That's going to be a tall order for the Pentagon, which hasn't completed a financial audit in 40 years.

"I will not approve any further reprogramming requests until I am provided this information," McCain wrote.

The defense authorization bill provides the Defense Department with authority to reprogram about $8 billion per year, pending congressional approval, so McCain is saying that this authority has been abused. But he is also arguing that the Pentagon has been usurping power from Congress by using a power that is supposed to be reserved for unplanned contingencies to fund programs it can't get through Capitol Hill.

A McCain staffer told The Cable that Congress has seen the reprogramming process abuse getting worse recently. The committee has received requests for $850 million in reprogramming in only the last two months, $144 million of which is for "new" programs not authorized by Congress.

"It was a trend we were seeing in the last 6 months in which we were seeing it getting away from actually emergencies," the staffer said. "The goal for Sen. McCain is to ensure that any money for new programs is vetted through the appropriate Congressional processes."

Of course, Congress bears some of the blame for this problem. The appropriations process has been a mess for years, with funding bills coming late or not at all, creating havoc for Pentagon planners and financial officials. The entire federal government is often run on continuing resolutions due to Congress's failure to pass budgets, which makes starting new programs through the regular process more difficult. And the use of omnibus appropriations bills to eventually fund the government takes away individual lawmakers power to strike specific programs through amendments..

McCain's committee is supposed to authorize funding in its defense policy bill each year before the appropriations committee doles out that funding. But the authorization bills are also perennially late, passed after the fiscal year has started, so the Armed Services committees have less influence over defense funds than they should. McCain's effort today is also a way to try to redress that imbalance.

McCain has outright rejected at least two Pentagon reprogramming requests this year already. He re jected the Pentagon's request to increase the budget of the Navy's research and development arm by $29.2 million to bolster U.S.-European cooperation in forecasting ocean patterns, asking the Pentagon to explain why that was more important than other military needs.

McCain also denied a $38 million reprogramming request from the Army's research and development shop that the Army wanted to spend on studying ways to combat emerging threats posed by new radio communications technologies. That issue will be debated in Congress as part of this years authorization bill.

A Pentagon spokesman didn't immediate respond to a request for comment.