Mayday

The Defense secretary declares a budget emergency.

May was a big month in the world of federal management. The Obama administration unveiled its proposal to overhaul the federal hiring system, wiping away a pair of staples of the process-knowledge, skills and abilities essays and the rule of three for deciding who's eligible to be hired.

A few days earlier, Defense Secretary Robert Gates aimed even higher with a barnburner of a speech in Abilene, Kan. Gates made the case that the military's overhead expenses, especially pay and benefits costs, "are eating the Defense Department alive." He specifically noted the "admirable sentiment" that causes Congress to routinely boost benefits for service members and increase the administration's proposed annual pay increase by half a percentage point. Gates said he would seek a 10 percent cut in overhead spending in the department's fiscal 2012 budget to fund 3 percent real growth in modernizing weapons systems and boosting force structure.

The context for the speech was no accident. Gates delivered his address at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, which honors a man known primarily for two things: victory in World War II and warning against the growth of the military-industrial complex. Gates quoted Eisenhower directly: "I say the patriot today is the fellow who can do the job with less money."

But Gates knows such people aren't easy to find in Washington. He was, he said, "fully aware of the fact that I am not the first in this office to make this case." Indeed, he noted his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had launched his own crusade against overhead spending- on Sept. 10, 2001. The next day's events pushed that endeavor permanently to the back burner.

Still, at least in theory, it seemed like Gates might be in a position to make some headway. After all, he's got very little left to lose. He had to be coaxed into taking the top Pentagon job during the Bush administration, and then to stay for the Obama transition. He doesn't need his job. Nor does he need to curry favor with anyone on Capitol Hill, in the defense industrial base-or in the White House, for that matter.

That means Gates could put his personal prestige and reputation for bipartisanship on the line. And his chances looked pretty good-for about four days. That's how long it was before a House subcommittee took up the military pay raise issue. The panel decided to back a 1.9 percent raise in 2011, a figure that was-wait for it-exactly half a percentage point higher than President Obama's proposal.

That probably didn't surprise Gates. But it just might have hastened the day when he throws in the towel and makes his exit.

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