FPI Bulletin: Obama’s Muddled Critique of the Defense Policy Bill

October 19, 2015

The White House has made it perfectly clear that President Obama intends to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), yet continues to offer conflicting rationales for its opposition to the bill, which passed with 70 votes in the Senate and 270 votes in the House. Will the President veto the bill because he opposes its actual contents, or because a veto will enhance his leverage in budget talks with the Republican majorities on the Hill? The White House is now struggling to put forward a substantive critique of the NDAA rather than admit that its opposition is political in nature.

In his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016, President Obama requested an additional $35 billion for the Department of Defense and a similar increase for non-defense programs. Republicans countered with a budget resolution that approved the increase in defense spending while holding the line on domestic programs. These opposing positions have set the parameters for a debate about the budget that remains unresolved.

The NDAA is a policy bill, not an appropriations bill, so its passage has no direct bearing on the budget debate.  The NDAA “does not spend a dollar, and it certainly cannot raise the budget caps or deliver an agreement to fund the government,” said John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “It is absurd to veto the NDAA for something that the NDAA cannot do.” There is no dispute regarding the powers of the NDAA. While defending the President’s veto threat, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters, “the authorization bill makes no appropriations at all, as you well know.”

Earlier this year, in a prepared statement for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary Carter was candid about the reasons for his support of the President’s veto threat. “The President has said he will not accept a budget that severs the vital link between our national and economic security,” Secretary Carter explained, “because that principle – matching defense increases with non-defense increases dollar-for-dollar – was a basic condition of the bipartisan agreement we got in 2013, the President sees no reason why we shouldn’t uphold those same principles in any agreement now.”

Substantive objections to the NDAA have focused on its call to use supplemental funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) to give the President the additional $35 billion he asked for. Yet the NDAA’s position on how to provide additional funding remains nothing more than a recommendation, as both McCain and Carter observed. To be sure, Republicans favor a reliance on OCO spending for reasons that are political as well as substantive. Since OCO funds are exempt from the limits imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) and its sequestration mechanism, their use provides a way to increase the defense budget without lifting BCA caps on non-defense spending, as the President requested. Even so, objections to the use of OCO funding do not provide a coherent rationale for opposing the NDAA, because the NDAA is simply not an appropriations bill, which would be required before the actual use of any OCO funds.

While Secretary Carter clearly understands this distinction, White House spokesman Josh Earnest has repeatedly insisted that President Obama will veto the NDAA because OCO money is “an irresponsible way to fund our national defense priorities. Earnest has also made a habit of referring to OCO money as a “slush fund”, a deeply misleading characterization since it suggests financial impropriety. While the Department of Defense enjoys greater discretion with regard to OCO expenditures, they are subject to oversight and Congress may give specific instructions on how they ought to be spent.

Secretary Carter has attempted to provide rhetorical support for the White House effort to tie the NDAA veto threat to the drawbacks of OCO funding, yet Carter has carefully refused to echo Mr. Earnest’s misleading presentation of the NDAA as a spending bill. Instead, Carter said the NDAA merited a veto because it sought “to evade the question of overall fiscal responsibility with the so-called OCO gimmick,” a vague formulation suggesting his discomfort with Earnest’s talking points.

In light of both unpredictability on the legislative horizon and the significance of reforms mandated by this year’s NDAA, the responsible course of action for the President would be to sign the bill when it reaches his desk. There are serious concerns that the government will shut down in mid-December as a result of an impasse in negotiations about the budget. If the President does not sign the NDAA now, it is not clear whether or when the bill will return to his desk. If he approves the bill, he would become the President who signed into law historic reforms of the military retirement and defense acquisition systems that are expected to save billion of dollars every year. He would also continue the 53 year-old tradition of passing a defense policy bill with bipartisan support regardless of the political climate in Washington as a whole. For a President who campaigned on the ideals of civil debate and sound governance, this tradition is one that is well worth upholding.

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.
Read More