There is no "wiggle room" in the Defense Department budget, and Congress must pass the emergency supplemental spending bill as soon as possible to avoid halting operations and furloughing civilian employees, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
During a Pentagon news conference, Gates reinforced the message he delivered to Congress yesterday, when he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Capitol Hill and briefed members of both houses.
Gates strongly urged Congress to pass a global war on terror funding bill that the president would sign, he said.
The secretary said the president's signing of the 2008 National Defense Appropriations Act into law earlier this week caused some misperceptions. One misperception is that the Defense Department can continue funding troops in the field for an indefinite period of time through accounting maneuvers -- "that we can shuffle money around the department."
"This is a serious misconception," the secretary said.
The Defense Department has significantly less funding flexibility than it had in the spring, he said. In the fall of 2006, Congress provided a bridge fund of $70 billion until passage of the full war supplemental bill, which did not pass until late May 2007.
This year, the Defense Department was operating under a continuing resolution. "Now that the regular appropriations bill has been enacted, we are left with no bridge fund and only our base budget to support normal war operations," Gates said. "Further, Congress has provided very limited flexibility to deal with this funding shortage."
Restrictions on the budget mean that the department can transfer only $3.7 billion, which amounts to just a little over one week's worth of war expenses, he said.
All this leaves the department with only undesirable options to continue operations with the absence of a bridge fund, the secretary said.
"The path we believe is least undesirable fiscally and militarily would involve the following: The military would cease operations at all Army bases by mid-February next year," he said. "This would result in the furloughing of about 100,000 government employees and a like number of contractor employees at Army bases.
"These layoffs would have a cascading effect on depots and procurement," he continued. "Similar actions would follow for the Marine Corps about a month later."
The department must notify certain union employees 60 days in advance of any layoff or furlough, so the department will need to send the notices to affected employees in mid-December.
"If the Congress does not provide bridge funding this week on a bill the president will sign, and given the uncertainty of future action in December, by the end of this week -- as a prudent manager -- I will be obliged to take a series of anticipatory steps," Gates said.
The secretary said he will submit an urgent reprogramming request for funds to Congress. He also will direct the Army and Marine Corps to develop a plan to furlough employees, terminate contracts and prepare bases for reduced operations. "These plans would begin to be implemented in mid-December," he said.
Even if Congress acts, the president signs a bill, and the department receives $50 billion in bridge funding now, this will fund war operations only through about the end of February, Gates said.
"So we would be back in this situation immediately after the Congress reconvenes in late January," the secretary said. "The high degree of uncertainty on funding for the war is immensely complicating this task and will have tremendous consequences for this department and the men and women in uniform."
Gates said the issue before Congress is not one of principle, but pacing. He said Congress asked the president to draw down the troops in Iraq, set a date for when the drawdowns would begin, set a timetable for the drawdowns and then to transfer the security mission to Iraqis.
"The president has moved in all four of these areas: He has announced there will be drawdowns; the drawdowns have already started," Gates said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has announced a timetable at least for the first five brigade combat teams, and the mission of transition begins in December when the first brigade comes out, he said.
"What I told members of Congress yesterday, for those who allege that the views of the generals were not sufficiently taken into account at the front end of the war, now you have a recommendation from the commander in the field, the commander of Central Command, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on what makes sense in terms of pacing so we don't put at risk the gains we've already made," Gates said.
"It seems to me that there ought to be some deference to those who are running the war -- the generals -- at the pace at which this drawdown should take place," the secretary said. "However one feels about how we've got to this point, the reality is we have had some significant success due to the efforts of our men and women in uniform and their sacrifices.
"We don't want to sacrifice their success," he continued. "So how do we get the next phase of this conflict right? Because the consequences of getting it wrong are potentially high."