FPI Bulletin: Congress’s Defense Budget Dilemma

March 6, 2015

For five consecutive years, Congress has proven incapable of passing a budget resolution, which provides the basic framework for annual spending measures. This year, congressional leaders are determined to pass a budget resolution and show that they can play by the rules of the Congressional Budget Act. That goal is important, but should not become a pretext for short-sighted compromises that subject the U.S. military to the disastrous effects of sequestration.

As a result of sequestration and other provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), the Pentagon must cut $1 trillion from its budget over the course of ten years. In January, the military’s top officers testified that, as a result of these cuts, “Americans’ lives are being put at risk.”  President Obama has requested an additional $35 billion for the Armed Forces, yet his secretary of defense explained that this constitutes a partial solution at best. This week, in a prepared statement for the Senate Armed Service Committee, Ashton Carter said the President’s request is “what we need to remain… at the bottom edge of manageable risk to our national defense... [T]here is no slack.  There is no margin left for error, nor for a response to strategic surprise.”

In normal times, such a weak defense budget would be a non-starter.  But these are not normal times.  Early indications suggest that the House and Senate majorities are drafting a budget resolution that will accept the harsh cuts imposed by sequestration. When Ashton Carter appeared before House appropriators on March 4, Defense Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) warned him that “the Budget Control Act of 2011 remains the law of the land… unless and until the law is changed, this committee has no choice but to draft our bill to comply with the BCA caps.”  This followed a similar exchange the week before, when Mr. Frelinghuysen warned the Air Force and Navy secretaries that he would have to cut tens of billions of dollars from their services, with or without their cooperation.

While the BCA certainly remains the law of the land, some senior lawmakers are determined to change it. Before the House and Senate Budget Committees mark up the budget resolution, they receive official “views and estimates” from the chairmen of other committees.  Last week, the chairmen of the Armed Services Committees submitted views and estimates calling for full relief from sequestration in FY 2016.  This would provide an additional $52 billion for defense next year. The letter from House Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) also carried the signatures of 30 other Republicans on the Armed Services Committee. Meanwhile, the letter from Senate Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) was co-signed by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the committee’s ranking member.

While the chairmen of the Armed Services Committees tend to be the most vocal advocates of a strong defense, no fewer than 70 members of the House majority signed their names to a letter that Congressman Mike Turner (R-OH) recently sent to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). In a press release that accompanied the letter, Turner said, “Seventy individual members have made it clear that a budget that fails to fully fund defense will not pass the House of Representatives.” said Turner.  “The protection of our national defense and of the security of the American people must come first,” he added. Specifically, Turner and his colleagues described the President’s request for an additional $35 billion as the bare minimum they would tolerate, while noting that more is preferable.

The recommendations from Thornberry, McCain and Turner all rest on powerful arguments being made by senior defense experts from both parties. The most important of these is contained in the July 2014 report of the National Defense Panel (NDP), which John McCain and Jack Reed cited in their letter to the Budget Committee. The NDP is a bipartisan, congressionally-mandated commission that was co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid.  McCain and Reed emphasize the NDP’s unanimous recommendation “that Congress and the President immediately repeal the BCA and return, at a minimum, to the funding baseline in the FY 2012 defense budget that was prepared by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.”  This level of funding would amount to $112 billion more than allowed by sequestration in 2016.  McCain and Reed note that while such a large increase may not be executable within a single year, that is the right level to pursue in coming years.

Whereas 10 senior leaders served on the NDP, a group of 85 experts sent an open letter to the leaders of Congress, calling on them to “adopt a budget for fiscal year 2016 that puts us on a path to restore defense spending to at least the level recommended by Secretary Gates, including significantly greater funding than the President has requested.”

The diversity of the letters’ signatories reflects the depth of current concerns about the state of the U.S. military.  The letter’s signatories include former Secretaries of Defense Robert M. Gates and Melvin Laird; former Senators Evan Bayh (D-IN), Norm Coleman (R-MN), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), and Jim Talent (R-MO), and leading Democratic defense and foreign policy experts Michèle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell. Six of the 10 members of the NDP also signed the letter

One the great flaws of the BCA is that it does not address the real drivers of this country’s debt and deficits, namely entitlements. It is understandable, even admirable, that congressional leaders now place a priority on reductions in federal spending. However, the only benefit of submission to the flawed BCA is that it is the path of least resistance. Instead, congressional leaders should build a winning coalition for strengthening the country’s defenses.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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