How the DoD Budget Process Works

Government

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The White House Office of Management and Budget released the president’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2019 (which begins on October 1, 2018) on Monday, officially kicking-off budget season — even though we haven’t finished with the FY 2018 fireworks yet. This year’s budget submission, though, carried a new twist.

As long as presidents have been submitting budget requests to Congress, Congresses have been declaring them “dead on arrival.” So this year, the White House didn’t bother submitting a truly serious plan. They’re not even pretending. Part of that is because, as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Monday, if they’d waited to incorporate all the details of last week’s budget deal into the submission, it would have delayed its release by two or three months.

But more than that, Mulvaney, a former congressman, made the admission that one wishes many OMB directors before him would have made: “The executive budget has always been a messaging document.”

So what’s the message?

No president truly expects to see his entire budget adopted as-is, even when he controls both houses of Congress. Even if the Republicans had 60 votes in the Senate and could pass legislation without a single Democrat, the president’s budget would not emerge intact. It just never happens.

So in a move that the Trump administration will get grief for, but for which they really should get credit, they admit the budget submission is really just a wish list, and that it has no chance of surviving the legislative process. Instead, the document sends, in Mulvaney’s words, two messages.

“Number one, you don’t have to spend all of this money, Congress,” he said. “But if you do, here is how we would prefer to see you spend it.” So that admission alone takes away some of the sticker shock of the $4.4 trillion price tag.

So why, then, if the budget request is DOA and the plan has no chance of making it through the process do we bother with the grand show? Because at the department level, particularly for the Department of Defense, the documents submitted to Congress  are indispensable for the staffers on the the armed services committees and the defense subcommittees of the appropriations committees in both the House and the Senate.

An incredibly detailed document

Almost everyone outside the Department of Defense has no idea what goes into putting the budget together. Heck, I understand the process and it still makes my head spin. The Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution process is all-consuming. It is a bottom-up compilation of every requirement for enabling the DOD to meet its mission.

Each year, each activity in each service creates its Program Objective Memorandum (POM), a five-year projection of its financial requirements. now that the FY 2019 budget has dropped (based on POM 19-23) offices already starting to build POM 20-24. All of these POMs get filled-up into a service’s budget request, the services get rolled-into the DOD’s overall request, which is in turn rolled-into the OMB budget submission.

There’s a good reason for the amount of attention that this process requires. One does not simply walk into a showroom and buy a tank, helicopter, or fighter plane the way you buy a car. Imagine instead that you had to synchronize your car-buying schedule with the factory’s manufacturing schedule, and also plan for everything you’ll need to keep your car running. Do that, and you might begin to understand the level of detail this process requires.

And there’s no way the meager staff on Capitol Hill can do the work. They need the DOD’s input. While it’s easy to say “you can upgrade 130 tanks this year instead of the 135 tanks you wanted to upgrade,” without the detailed information on cost and schedule, Congress would never be able to arrive at a final decision for anything.

For those who have never looked at these documents before, the DOD’s office of the undersecretary for financial management (comptroller) puts them all online. And if you want to do the “deep dive” into the Army’s submission, you can do that here.

There’s a lot there. In the coming days and weeks, I hope to look more closely at some of the details.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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