The decision to block retirement of some C-130s, however, reveals how narrow, yet critical, the political interests can be. Pennsylvania lawmakers declared victory last month when they reversed the decision to retire eight C-130s and shut down the 911th Airlift Wing near Pittsburgh. Local officials and business owners argued that the base, which uses space at Pittsburgh International Airport, provides an economic boost to the entire community.
Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, lobbied Pentagon leaders and fellow lawmakers to keep the wing. They argued in a letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that "the 911th is a very efficient and cost effective installation" and that closing it down could be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Pentagon officials also have been thwarted in their broader efforts to shut down costly and underused military facilities around the country. Congress rejected the department's request last year for two more rounds of base closings as lawmakers objected, not only to the prospect of taking jobs and dollars out of a region's economy, but also questioned if closing the facilities actually would achieve the promised savings.
Pentagon budget chief Robert Hale acknowledged earlier this month that the department spent $35 billion on the base-closure round in 2005, and while it saves $4 billion a year, officials won't break even until 2018. The expense is largely because several new facilities were built as others were merged and closed down.
"Would a [base-closings] round be effective in providing rapid savings? Unfortunately, history has emphatically told us, 'No,'" Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said during a recent hearing on the Base Realignment and Closures Program. "I believe that aggressively moving forward with the BRAC round could significantly harm our military power and their ability to project power."
The Defense Department saves about $8 billion a year on the four rounds that were carried out before 2005. The Pentagon has proposed another round in 2014 that Hale said would save $1 billion to $2 billion a year. Pentagon leaders insist that the military still has nearly 20 percent too many bases and facilities.
"There is still excess infrastructure," Assistant Army Secretary Katherine Hammack told the House Armed Services Committee last month. "I was just on one [base] that had 800 buildings, and we were utilizing 300 of them."
Perhaps the most significant cost savings historically opposed by Congress are Pentagon efforts to scale back military retirement benefits, including proposals to increase premiums or co-pays for retirees.
"I think there's a misunderstanding in Congress about what it is that would change," Harrison said. "They tend to associate changes in retirement benefits with changes to veterans benefits."
However, changes to retiree health care would affect only the approximately 17 percent of the service members who stay in the military long enough to qualify for retirement, and those are usually more senior officers who already have a higher income. Veterans' benefits more often help those with lower incomes, and they are included in the Veterans Affairs Department budget, not the Pentagon's.
Turner faults department leaders for some of the problems with those broader issues.
"I think, on policy shifts, you need a more holistic approach, and the Pentagon usually doesn't engage Congress in discussions of finding cuts or program changes," he said. "They send them up as missiles for Congress to deal with, instead of using a deliberative approach."
Harrison said the Pentagon needs to do a better job of explaining and selling its arguments for such politically unpalatable spending cuts.
"If you actually try to do smart, targeted reductions, like closing bases, like actually reducing the size of the workforce, targeted cuts have winners and losers," Harrison said, "and Congress has not been willing to make those tough decisions."
As a result, he said, lawmakers resort to broader, across-the-board cuts, such as the furloughs.
"It spreads pain across evenly," he said, "so everyone can wash their hands of it."