Home News & Analysis As President Obama Prepares to Sign NDAA, Senator McCain’s Objections to Guam Military Buildup Are Dwarfed by Long-Term Defense Budget Decisions Yet to Come

GUAM – No matter how much Guam wanted the Pentagon to clarify the way forward for a planned multi-billion-dollar Marine Corps base that could prop up its own struggling economy, Congress simply lacked the political will to get much of the nation's business done at all this year.

It took all summer and fall to get the annual defense policy bill through Congress, and when it was all said an done, the Senate had succeeded in freezing the Guam military buildup for at least the next year. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act will soon be on President Obama's desk for his signature, and the White House has said he will sign it.

Together with the 2012 national budget which Congress also finally approved last week, the legislation de-funds over $150 million in military construction for the buildup this year. Only $33 million for related civilian infrastructure made it through.

Congress has stopped short of calling for an outright end to American funding for the U.S.-Japan troop realignment plan. Lawmakers are demanding only a delay in funding until the Pentagon can deliver cohesive detail on its broader implementation scheme for transferring over 8,000 Marines to Guam from Okinawa.

Still however, the real root of the buildup's slowdown lies in far weightier, longer-term issues than the recent showdown over defense policy and the budget. They overshadow even the latest Senate theatrics, most notably the defiance by ranking Armed Services Committee member Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) who has consistently said the U.S. can no longer afford the buildup's price tag.

This is a battle that will be waged well beyond the 2012 budget cycle as the nation struggles to find trillions in savings to reduce its deficit over the next 10 years, and at a time when the partisan divide in Washington seems bent more on scoring political points even if it puts the nation's defense and financial health at greater and greater risk.

It's hard to find a more poignant way to sum up a year of dysfunction in Washington (and the upshot of that quandary for Guam) than for House Republicans and Senate Democrats to arrive at yet another stalemate this late in the year. This time they're fighting over extending payroll tax cuts for millions of Americans. The Senate already is in recess for the holidays and despite House Republicans insisting they'd work through Christmas, the Senate's Democratic leadership is refusing to reopen negotiations.

While it's certainly not Pentagon spending or the Guam buildup, the payroll tax cut is headed for the same continuing ambiguity that has plagued both for the same reason: Washington politicians are already consumed with how to win the 2012 elections, or more cynically, how to defeat their rivals.

Instead of Congress bringing clarity and calm over pressing issues, 2011 has been a year of short-term fixes like the temporary budget extensions that narrowly averted a federal government shutdown several times this year but left little time for lawmakers to agree on a 12-month national spending package. It's also been a year of failed long-term planning, as when the super committee missed its deadline to produce a 10-year plan to shrink the nation's deficit.

Rather than asking their constituents to accept the reasonable idea of compromise and rather than doing the hard work of real governing, Republicans and Democrats have preferred to cast the other party as obstructionist. They continue to kick the proverbial can down the road on taxes, defense and other critical issues, at least until the day after next November's elections.

Most importantly for the Guam military buildup, the super committee's failure to endorse a plan for balanced reduction of the nation's debt over the long term has now triggered across-the-board cuts to defense that the Pentagon says will be ruinous to the military.

Blocking the impending sequester – level cuts that would be taken indiscriminately across all defense and Pentagon programs, amounting to roughly $600 billion over the next 10 years – will require 60 votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate. That's a threshold defense hawk Republicans seem unlikely to achieve in this deeply partisan environment. Moreover, President Obama has said he would veto any attempt to undo sequestration, a tactic meant to force Congress to produce a balanced alternative for achieving deficit reduction.

Meanwhile, there is no word from the Pentagon on how it would adjust national security strategy, let alone the Guam buildup, for the sequester. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is still only talking about trimming $450 billion from the agency's 10-year spending plan, and is still pressing for Congress to instead produce a balanced alternative to sequestration.

Even if Congress had approved 2012 funding for the Guam buildup, would it really have helped? After all, with nearly $2 billion already appropriated from previous fiscal years by the U.S. and Japan, and less the half a billion of that yet spent, the program's coffer has hardly run dry.

Rather, it's the longer-term issue of sequestration that remains an overwhelming storm cloud overhead, rendering visibility on the future of the overall program (now expected to cost over $17 billion) murky at best. Until the impact of sequestration or some alternative deficit savings plan is resolved, Navy procurement systems for the buildup will remain stunted and contractors and local stakeholders will bear the immediate brunt.

If one thing is clear about the buildup as 2011 comes to a close, it's that the presidential election next November and all its attendant politicking will mean more of the same ambiguity for at least another year.

 

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