March 15, 2011

Surprises

ATTENTION: NEEDING GIVEAWAY SPONSORS!!
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First, happy surprise. Remember that giveaway I told you about? The one I asked you NOT to enter? Well, my evil plan worked. :) I won! And I got my prize yesterday!!

I was SOOOO excited to open the UPS packaging and see this inside!


Seriously, ae has the best giveaways!!

btw, did anyone tune into this week's Movie Monday last night? Bombshell. That was on last night and would totally make my week if you did.

There were other surprises this week. Mostly in the way of poorly researched news articles. I want to discuss some of that here today. You all may want to throw rocks at me afterwards, that's fine. But regardless of what happens on Friday, I think this is a teachable moment that we can all take advantage of.

Sorry if this is long, but I want to make sure anyone just coming to the table doesn't miss anything.

In case there's someone out there who doesn't know what I'm talking about, last week Army Times released an article titled: If Government Shuts Down, So Would Troop Pay. Alarming, no? Here's the equally alarmist text (emphasis mine):

U.S. troops could be required to report to work without pay if a budget clash in Congress results in a government-wide shutdown, according to draft planning guidance circulating in the Pentagon.

A shutdown could happen as early as next week, as the government is set to run out of money at midnight March 17. A bill that would keep the government operating temporarily has been prepared in the House of Representatives, but it is not clear when or if it might pass.

The government has been operating under a series of temporary appropriations, known as continuing resolutions, since Oct. 1 because of lawmakers’ inability to agree on how much money to provide federal agencies. Budget discussions have become increasingly complicated since the November general elections resulted in a divided legislature, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate.

When the government was shut down in 1995, military personnel continued to report to work and were paid, but the planning guidance sent to the services and defense agencies says a shutdown this time will be different.

“All military personnel will continue in normal duty status regardless of their affiliation with exempt or non-exempt activities,” says the draft planning guidance that was prepared for the services and defense agencies. “Military personnel will serve without pay until such time as Congress makes appropriated funds available to compensate them for this period of service.”

Troops would miss a payday only if the shutdown continues through April 1.

Troops and essential civilians who report for work without pay would receive back pay when government funding is restored. But whether furloughed civilians would receive back pay could depend on whether Congress specifically authorizes that, according to congressional aides who have been doing their own shutdown planning.

The memo, prepared in early March but never formally issued as guidance, attempts to spell out what defense missions would shut down and what would stay open in the event funding stops.

Hopefully this article raises some red flags, but not for the obvious reasons. There are several points in this article where some very important questions should be asked.

First of all, where did this information come from? The only thing it quotes is a draft memo - not a memo, a draft memo - that is allegedly circulating the Pentagon. No source as to how it came to Army Times (which is not run by the Army, btw. It's a subsidiary of GGMC, an independent media corporation run by civilians). No verifying statements from DoD or SecDef. Just a drafted memo somewhere around the Pentagon...leaked by no one, verified by no one. So where did it come from?

Second, the article admits that the government" has been shut down before without adverse affects on troop pay, but insists "this time would be different." Why? How? What makes it different? No clue. No reasons given. Just, trust us, this time will be different! dun dun duuuuuuuuun!!!

Now, all that alone should be enough to make the basic critical thinking skeptical, at least, if not outright disbelieving. Multiple other articles began circulating on sites such as military.com and federaltimes.com, all also owned and operated by GGMC, not the government - all of them restating the Army Times article without any independent investigation or verification.

Finally, yesterday, Sarah ran across this article on Stripes.com, the authorized publication of the DoD. Title: Budget delays wasting billions, harming readiness. Text (emphasis mine):

Defense officials are shaking their heads in disbelief as congressional leaders continue to delay passing a wartime defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011, which began last October.

With the military spending bill now more than five months overdue, lawmakers Wednesday passed a new stopgap “continuing resolution,” this “CR” to last two weeks, so Defense and other federal departments can continue at least to spend at last year’s budget level.

But the CR doesn’t account for inflation on so many things the military buys including medical care, fuel and supplies, as well as thousands of service and manufacturing contracts. This has left the services scrambling to close funding gaps in critical accounts, including for personnel and health care, by moving money from elsewhere in their budgets.

The result is billions of defense contracting dollars wasted and force readiness falling, Defense officials warned this week in testimony before the Senate and House defense appropriation subcommittees.

“We’ve been holding our breath so long that we are starting to turn blue,” Under Secretary of Defense Robert F. Hale, the comptroller and chief financial officer, bluntly told senators.

Hale and Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III described how budget delays have raised defense costs by creating enormous inefficiencies. These threaten to offset the effect of efficiency initiatives Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a task force painstakingly identified over the last year.

“This undercuts that greatly,” Lynn said.

Under a CR, the services can’t get full funding of “must-pay” bills such as for pay raises and health care. Monies then must be moved from other accounts, affecting readiness and modernization goals.

The services so far have suspended 75 construction projects. Army and Marine Corps have imposed temporary civilian hiring freezes. Navy cut the length of advance notice given sailors and families to prepare for change-of-station moves, from six months to two. It also delayed contracting for a second Virginia-class submarine this year and delayed buying equipment for a DDG-51 destroyer. Army has deferred the purchase of Chinook helicopters, the refurbishing of war-torn Humvees and has issued a temporary stop-work order on its Stryker Mobile Gun System.

“These are costly actions that we will want to reverse,” Hale said, but that will not be done “at the same price.”

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), defense subcommittee chairman, acknowledged the myriad of problems that a divided Congress has created.

“The readiness of our forces is beginning to be threatened as flying hours and streaming days are reduced, exercises and training events are canceled, equipment is foregoing much needed maintenance,” he said.

Republicans and Democrats continued to play politics with the defense money bill even after the new Congress convened. The House passed its 2011 defense appropriations bill but tied it to controversial deficit-reduction CR. Senate Democrats rejected it, saying that the CR language would decimate many domestic programs on which a recovering economy relies.

Inouye expects that another short CR might have to be passed when the two-week CR expires in mid-March. By April, lawmakers hope to be able to pass a CR that would last through Sept. 30, but with a full 2011 defense appropriations bill attached.

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chief, led the chorus of defense officials this week in warning of more dire consequences if a CR is allowed to freeze defense spending through all of 2011. In effect, that would cut $23 billion arbitrarily from the defense budget request that President Obama submitted back in February 2010.

But the most urgent unfinished business, Gates told the House subcommittee, is inaction on a $1.2 billion reprogramming request for troops fighting in Afghanistan. The money would buy fixed-base sensors to enhance intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, which Army Gen. David Petraeus, allied forces commander in Afghanistan, says are needed immediately “to better protect our forward-operating bases,” Gates said.

“As of last week, all congressional committees except this one approved the request," Gates said. He pointedly warned the panel not to jeopardize troops “to protect specific programs or contractors.”

Mullen complained that leaving the department under a CR for all of fiscal 2011 “would deprive us of the flexibility we need to support our troops and their families.” Some programs “may take years to recover,” he said.

Operating under a CR since October already “has caused regrettable complications,” Lynn told senators. A year-long CR would impact fighting forces even more directly “and their readiness to defend the nation.”

Hale predicted “brutal reprogramming actions” to move up to $2.5 billion into personnel accounts to ensure everyone gets paid. Another $1.3 billion would have to be shifted to close a money gap for military health care.

Expect “horrible management consequences…many too difficult to notice from here in Washington,” Lynn said. Program managers will delay contracts, and then “hastily make up for that by contracting too quickly without appropriate safeguards.” Others “will resort to short-term contracts that add expense for the taxpayer and instability for the industrial base.”

If the CR remains in effect, Air Force predicts a 10 percent cut in flying hours and lowering the buy of Reaper unmanned aircraft to 24 this year from the 36 planned. Navy would cut flight hours, ship steaming days and training exercises. All services would defer maintenance of equipment. Army would have to cut depot maintenance by $200 million, lowering readiness rates for Blackhawk and Kiowa helicopters. Navy would cancel maintenance availability periods for as many as 29 surface ships.

“The good news,” Hale said, “is that the troops are paying attention to their jobs and letting us worry about this, which is what they should do.”

Now, there's some good news in that article if you know where to look. First of all, notice all the nice sourced quotes, facts and figures, statistics and details? These are exactly what were missing from the original article - real facts.

Second, there are some important excerpts in this article that shed light on the whole pay hold crisis. Like that the most important budgetary concern according to SecDef is sensors for Afghanistan. Not troop pay. Why? The statement that they already know how much they would have to move to cover pay and healthcare costs: this means they already have a plan in place and know where the money would come from. Which tells me that, contrary to what the original article states, if the CR this week does not pass, troop pay will not be interrupted. And if it is, it will be temporary and back-paid.

Next, it's important to see that the vote this week is on a CR, not the 2011 budget. So, if this CR doesn't pass, "the government" won't "shut down." It only affects the military spending portion of the 2011 budget. So saying "the government will shut down" is hyperbolic, to put it mildly.

And lastly, most importantly in my opinion, the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs do not want the CR to pass this week . You see, a CR applies last year's budget to this year until this year's budget can be finalized. And the 2010 budget is insufficient to cover 2011 costs. They would have to shift money around anyway due to insufficient funds. Except, if they wait for the 2011 budget to be passed, they aren't locked into a 2010 CR tying their hands financially.

So, you see, there's a lot more to this than "if this doesn't pass this week the government will shut down." And that first article should have been a tip-off. Anything containing doomsday predictions without any supporting statistics or quotes is dubious, at best.

Yesterday, the House passed the CR. Now we'll see if it passes the Senate. Regardless of what happens, though, the likelihood that troops will go without pay is next-to-none, based on what the office of SecDef says. Whether they will be funded according to last year's budget, or they have to wing it without a CR or budget, provisions are in place to cover for it, just like in 1995.

There are still some questions I have that neither article answers. The big one is: who leaked that initial draft memo? Who stands to gain most from the CR passing? Not SecDef and the military. The CR ties their hands by not providing the funding they've requested for 2011. Same goes for regular military personnel. While we would still get paid, the CR would delay scheduled pay raises and some benefits.

The only group, from what I can tell, that benefits directly from the CR being passed are independent civilian contracting firms, who would be cut out if the CR failed and DoD had to wait for the actual budget to pass. It would be conceivable that they would want to "leak" some info to an overzealous staff reporter to try and influence Congress. Of course, that's just speculation, but by the process of elimination, that's the only group I can imagine wanting to manipulate our highly reactive community to pressure lawmakers to pass insufficient funding bills.

However, like I said, that's a speculation based on the questions those articles don't answer. And I'm outright stating it's speculation, not insisting "this time it will be different" on a guess but painting it like a certainty - without supporting reasons.

This is why it's important to always, always question what you see in print. More often than not, there are more questions raised than answered, and they are awfully important questions. It can change the whole story.

11 comments:

  1. *Stands while clapping* Thank you!!

    Nicely done!! I still can't believe that people will get so freaked the heck out over an article with NO SOURCES, NO STATISTICS, NO NOTHING.

    P.S. I'm jealous of your prize, specifically the HL card. I miss HL. *sniff, sniff*

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  2. Thanks so much for spelling that out for everyone!!!
    I heard so many people freaking out about it, I didn't though because who in their right mind would let that happen? And if it did happen, it would be a HUGE mess and unlikely to ever happen again. Plus, I'm pretty sure Obama wouldn't be reelected after something like that.

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  3. I had a very similar reaction to you when I first saw the ArmyTimes article. It smacked of political influence. I called a couple Army friends of ours that are in DC and was told that the general belief is that it was leaked by a politician's staffer in a effort to force the "other side" to the table this week on the CR.

    I find it incredible that Congress has been allowed to NOT do such a basic component of their job for almost 6 months. MAJOR fail on govt's part, and MAJOR fail on the media for sensationalizing it.

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  4. Congrats on winning! That looks like a great gift!

    And very interesting articles...thanks for sharing!

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  5. This is a great post! I should share it on fb so I won't have to see someone post the same ArmyTimes article for the 5,783rd time.

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  6. The wrapping paper is so cute.

    You thought about the contractors writing it? I bet that could be the case. But now I am going to stop before I go on a rant. GR!

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  7. Are you suggesting that we should be diligent about our research if we expect to be responsible participants in a democracy? Nice job.

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  8. Congrats on the win!!! Researching the issue always leads to the real deal!

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  9. Thank you so much for posting this. I have nothing else to say because I 100% agree withe everything you wrote.

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  10. Best blog post of this week, hands down! I couldn't agree more with you. I have seen so many people freak out on Facebook and Twitter and all I could think was "Yay right, unlikely! Get your facts straight!"

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