WASHINGTON ― California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert is willing to meet Democratic lawmakers partway in their reported plans to trim the defense budget: cut back on civilian employees, not equipment and modernization.
“Like everything else in government, personnel is your biggest cost, and the civilian-to-uniform ratio ... is at an all-time high,” Calvert, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subpanel, said in an interview Wednesday. “Our inability to correct that trend is eating away at our military, our procurement, our readiness, all the above, and so we need to do this.”
President Joe Biden is expected to release his federal budget plan in April, but battle lines are being drawn on Capitol Hill ahead of what is expected to be a tighter military budget than in recent years.
While some key Republicans want to protect the military budget increases that came under then-President Donald Trump, or even build upon them, Calvert said he is open to “responsible reductions.” He is offering civilian cuts as an alternative to cutting end strength and weapons platforms.
“Rather than reducing [personnel in] uniforms ― and I think there’s some talk about doing that, especially in the Army ― we need to look at the civilian workforce, which is at the highest ratio to uniformed service members than it has ever been,” Calvert said.
“If you’re going to cut defense, are you going to cut procurement? People are arguing we need to build the Columbia-class submarine and Virginia-class submarine ― and I agree ― that we [keep the] Space Force, and [that] our satellite program is woefully behind ― and I agree. Where do you make your reductions when your overwhelming cost is personnel?”
Under Calvert’s bill, the Rebalance for an Effective Defense Uniform and Civilian Employees Act, or Reduce Act, a 15 percent cut to the civilian workforce overall and a cap for the Defense Department’s Senior Executive Service at 1,000 employees would have to be in place by fiscal 2025 and remain through 2029. The defense secretary would be empowered to use voluntary-separation and early-retirement incentives toward the reduction.
The legislation, which has been introduced several times before, was inspired by a 2015 study by the Defense Business Board that illustrated how the Department of Defense could save $125 billion over five years by slashing overhead.
Still, the proposal to cut civilians would face new optics this year. As civilian voices were muted in favor of uniformed leaders under the Trump administration, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former general, committed under bipartisan pressure to “rebalance” Pentagon decision- and policy-making in favor of civilian leaders.
It’s also a different tact than that of the House Armed Services Committee’s new top Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers, who plans to guard against cuts and would prefer a 3-5 percent increase in defense spending ― which Pentagon leaders say is required to carry out the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
It’s still early in the budgeting cycle, and the two may align. But in meantime, Calvert’s approach offers something to fiscal conservatives, and it tracks with past efforts from Rogers’ predecessor, former Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
Even if Republicans can fend off a top-line cut or win an adjustment for inflation to keep shipbuilding and aircraft procurement on track, Calvert said he supports cutting the Defense Department’s civilian workforce.
“Hey, I hope Mike’s right. I mean, he is a good friend, but I think he’s a realist too,” Calvert said. “I worked with his predecessor on procurement reform, I’m trying to do some personnel reform, and we need those reforms on both sides.”
For their part, Democrats swiftly rejected Calvert’s legislation, making it one of the first skirmishes of the annual battle over the defense budget. The defense subpanel’s new chairwoman, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said she discussed the matter with Calvert and disagrees with him.
“His proposal could lead to some of the most talented and committed DOD public servants losing their jobs,” McCollum said in a statement. “While we agree there is excess defense spending, my focus is on making smart investments that yield demonstrable outcomes by cutting waste and ending subsidies for outdated and unnecessary programs and facilities. In my view, the existing Department of Defense civilian workforce is mission critical to ensuring our national security.”
The American Federation of Government Employees has historically opposed the bill, and a spokesman said funding and defense policy legislation passed last year prohibit civilian workforce cuts “without regard to impacts on readiness, lethality, military force structure, stress of the force, operational effectiveness and fully burdened costs.”
With 768,000 federal employees working across all Defense Department components, the proposed cut amounts to 100,000 employees. Between 2015 and 2019, an average of just under 82,000 employees left DoD jobs each year.
Calvert contends his 15 percent cut could be accomplished through attrition, not firings, and target “growth in middle management,” not the supply depots scattered around the country that have political backing. Previous cuts of civilian personnel have fueled increases in contracting costs ― and Calvert said he is open to cutting those too, in partnership with McCollum.
“There would be discretion on the part of the people running the Pentagon; there are people you don’t want to lose, they’re in a special category, I get it,” Calvert said. “There are probably a lot of people you wouldn’t miss, people up for retirement.”
Democrats are more apt to take on nuclear modernization, which is projected to cost the Pentagon more than $240 billion in taxpayer dollars through 2028. In the balance is the contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, awarded to Northrop Grumman last year, to replace aging, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Politico reports that progressive lawmakers and disarmament advocates are lobbying allies in the Biden administration for a pause in the GBSD program, while the Air Force and its allies in Congress, think tanks, and defense contractors are sharpening their arguments to preserve the program.
Calvert acknowledged criticism of nuclear spending from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., but said big cuts to the nuclear triad lack the backing to succeed. (The panel rejected a funding cut for GBSD last year.)
“I know Adam has been critical of that, but there’s absolute support for redundancy of the deterrent within the Republican ranks, and so I don’t see that going away. What I’m hearing so far out of the administration is that they feel the same way, so I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Calvert said.
Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks have voiced support for nuclear modernization broadly but stopped short of pledging to uphold the current nuclear modernization strategy in its entirety.
Nuclear modernization cutbacks would “weaken the United States,” Calvert argued.
“We’re not just thinking about Russia; we’ve got China, who’s rapidly militarizing space, and their missile capability is improving. Obviously we’ve got countries like North Korea or Iran that are building their own missile capability, so we have to have a strong deterrent to make sure we are ready for any contingency.”
Jessie Bur of Federal Times and Leo Shane III of Military Times contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.