PPBE Reform Commission

Panel Urges Limited Steps To Improve DOD Budget Flexibility

Aviation Week Article by Brian Everstein, 15 August 2023

Capitol Hill should take limited steps to help the Pentagon improve its budgeting flexibility and speed up acquisition, according to a congressionally mandated panel, though the recommendations stop short of calling on Congress to cede authority or make large-scale changes to its political process that can bog down the procedure. 

The Commission on Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution Reform was created in the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill. It released an interim report on Aug. 15 outlining a series of recommendations to improve the Defense Department’s processes. Most recommendations center on the Pentagon making changes, such as by improving relationships with Congress by adding midyear updates on its budgeting process, restructuring its budget justification documents, and improving recruiting and training for its budget workforce, among others.

Robert Hale, the commission’s chair, told reporters in rolling out the interim proposal that a key way to improve budget flexibility would be an overhaul in how funding requests are presented in budget documents. Programs are currently broken down into thousands of line items that can bog down and complicate the approval process, particularly for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E).

“In the RDT&E account alone there are about a thousand of these little guys and you’ve got to wonder whether that is so many that it is difficult for DOD to manage, let alone for Congress to execute oversight,” Hale says.

Hale is a former Defense Department comptroller who also served as the head of U.S. Air Force financial management. He chaired the panel with co-chair Ellen Lord, who last served as under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

The panel recommends that the Pentagon and Congress look at potentially consolidating budget line items. This has been tried before recently, with the Air Force and U.S. Navy abruptly changing how some programs are requested without any explanation, and so it was unsuccessful. 

Budgets can show dollars in more mission-focused ways as opposed to split apart in different “colors of money.” For example, some partitioned into RDT&E, others in procurement balances, etc. Instead, funding can be allotted by a major capability area.

One proposal that came up this year aimed at more flexibility is Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s idea to allow the Pentagon to begin new start acquisition programs ahead of congressional approval. Kendall argues it takes about two years for a program to start after being developed and then proposed in the budget. Allowing the services to start a program and move through early stages up to preliminary design review would speed up acquisitions at a limited cost of congressional oversight.

Hale says the commission is not recommending this move, noting there are concerns with some appropriators on Capitol Hill. Instead, the panel recommends other minor tweaks such as having the Pentagon provide quarterly briefings to outline its proposed new starts as opposed to sending them to the Hill one by one. The panel also recommends allowing a new start to begin under a continuing resolution if all four of the defense committees had acted on the defense bills and none prohibited the new starts.