FPI Bulletin: New Budget Gives Short Shrift to Defense

April 9, 2015

Congress is poised next week to adopt its first budget resolution since 2009, culminating a debate that some observers have described as a victory for increased defense spending.  While it is true that the House and Senate have each adopted amendments to provide additional emergency funding for the military, they also retained the strict spending caps that are already damaging the force. As a result, the Pentagon faces the resumption of full-on “sequestration” cuts starting again in October, while the promised emergency funding is unlikely to materialize.

To understand this debate, it is important to note that a budget resolution is not a law. It is better understood as a statement of priorities by Congress, which the President is not required to sign and cannot veto. Even by this measure, Congress is demonstrating that it is not eager to provide the U.S. military with additional funding.

In his February budget request, President Obama asked for $534 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget, or $35 billion more than allowed by limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2010 (BCA).  Obama also requested an additional $51 billion to pay for such efforts as the war in Afghanistan, known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding. OCO funding does not count against the spending caps established by the BCA.

In response, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-UT), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced a resolution that simply stripped out the additional $35 billion President Obama requested for the military. A resolution introduced by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, also stripped out that $35 billion, yet offered an extra $20 billion of OCO funding, or $40 billion if the increase were offset by cuts to other programs.

The Price and Enzi resolutions discounted the advice of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairmen, who warned, “If Washington does not change course now, Republicans will share the blame for the national-security failures that will inevitably result.” Both Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) recommended a $551 billion budget for the Pentagon. Moreover, 70 Republican Members of Congress signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), insisting that the budget resolution match President Obama dollar for dollar on defense spending. 

Belatedly, the House and Senate leadership moved to satisfy this demand for additional defense spending. The resulting compromise left sequestration in place, but would allow a $39 billion increase in the OCO account above the President’s request, for a total of $90 billion. There would be no requirement to pay for this increase with offsetting reductions elsewhere. This change led to the perception that the defenders of sequestration had made a substantial concession to their critics. On March 27, the House passed its budget resolution by a vote of 219-208. Two days later, the Senate passed its resolution by a margin of 52-46.

In practice, the additional OCO funding promised by the House and Senate may never materialize. While Congress tends to give the President whatever he asks for to support the troops in the field, there has been resistance to using OCO as a means of circumventing sequestration. Two years ago, there was a similar effort to give the Pentagon about $5 billion in OCO funding above the President’s request.  Instead, Republican deficit hawks joined with the Democratic minority to block the attempt. A similar ad hoc coalition may again block the additional funds during the appropriations process, either in committee or on the floor.

Moreover, the additional OCO money would have to contend with a potential veto. President Obama has threatened to block legislation that does not lift the sequestration-level caps on both defense and domestic programs. He specifically warned against any attempt to increase spending on defense while leaving the domestic caps in place. Of course, this is exactly what Congress wants to achieve by adding $39 billion to President Obama’s OCO request while leaving sequestration in place. The result will likely be an impasse similar to the one in late 2013, which was resolved only when the Ryan-Murray deal provided both defense and domestic programs with an equal measure of relief from sequestration.

While tracking the latest developments on the Hill, it is important not to lose sight of the broader picture. Neither the President nor Congress has proposed a level of spending commensurate with existing threats to U.S. national security.  Even if there is a reprise of the Ryan-Murray deal, it too would almost certainly again be insufficient.

To get a better understanding of the Pentagon’s actual needs, one should review the final report of the bipartisan, congressionally-chartered National Defense Panel (NDP).  This panel concluded that an adequate defense would require at least $611 billion in 2016, as proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his final request. In an open letter to the House and Senate leadership, a bipartisan group of more than eighty national security experts have endorsed this recommendation.

A few members of Congress have recognized the depth of the divide between a responsible defense budget and the one that is likely to pass. Prior to the vote on the Senate budget resolution, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced an amendment that would’ve raised the defense budget to the level recommended by the National Defense Panel. With 32 votes in favor, the amendment did not pass. Yet this unexpected level of support may herald a delayed recognition by Congress that it has not carried out its Constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense.

Even as the adoption of a budget resolution is heralded as the restoration of regular order in Congress, its details indicate how much remains to be done before the President and Congress provide our Armed Forces with the funding they require. 

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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