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Budget hawks question doom

by BYRON YORK

There's no doubt President Obama is using the so-called Washington Monument maneuver in the fight with Republicans over sequestration budget cuts. It's a time-honored tactic of bureaucratic warfare: When faced with cuts, pick the best-known and most revered symbol of government and threaten to shut it down. Close the Washington Monument and say, "See? This is what happens when you cut the budget." Meanwhile, all sorts of other eminently cuttable government expenditures go untouched.
So now Obama is warning of drastic cuts in food safety, air traffic control, police and fire protection.
But perhaps the biggest example of the Washington Monument maneuver is coming from the Defense Department, where it goes by another name. The Pentagon has often used a tactic known as a "gold watch." It means to answer a budget cut proposal by selecting for elimination a program so important and valued -- a gold watch -- that Pentagon chiefs know political leaders will restore funding rather than make the cut.
So now, with sequestration approaching, the Pentagon has announced the possibility of budget cuts has forced the Navy to delay deployment of the carrier USS Harry S. Truman to the Persian Gulf. With tensions with Iran as high as they've ever been, that would leave the U.S. with just one carrier, instead of the preferred two, in that troubled region.
 Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is worried not only about the Truman decision but also the Navy's announcement that it cannot afford to refuel another carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. "I am concerned that these decisions are being made for the purpose of adding drama to the sequestration debate," Hunter wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to the Pentagon, "given the continuation of other programs that are worthy of cost-cuts or even elimination."
Meanwhile, with a budget higher than it was even at the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Pentagon is resisting attempts to force it to audit its own finances. Congress passed a law back in 1990 requiring such an audit, to no avail. Last year, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Audit the Pentagon Act, which would try again to force a look inside the maze of Pentagon spending.
"It's difficult to take these doomsday scenarios seriously when the Pentagon can't even audit its own books," says a spokesman for Coburn.
If the sequestration cuts go into effect, many members of Congress will be watching the Pentagon closely. Hunter, for example, will monitor the Navy's "Green Fleet" biofuel initiative that cost $170 million in 2012-2013, as well as a troubled battlefield software system that has cost $28 billion. Others will be watching for conventional waste. When sequestration came, what did Pentagon leaders cut?
"If you laid off these people, or you diverted this aircraft carrier, then why did you go ahead and travel to a conference in Bermuda or continue to pay contractors' inflated salaries?" says one Senate aide. "Those are the questions we are going to ask."
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.


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