FPI Bulletin: In the Senate, a Looming Standoff on Defense

June 8, 2015

This week, as the Senate votes on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the debate will increasingly center on the threat of Minority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV) to filibuster the $612 billion bill. Although Congress has approved a defense authorization act each and every year for more than half a century, Mr. Reid is threatening to kill this year’s bill on the grounds that it uses wartime supplemental funding to repair deep cuts to the defense budget. This objection is mainly a pretense, however, in an effort to hold the defense bill hostage unless Congress increases spending on domestic programs.

The current dispute is the result of an ongoing stalemate between Republicans and Democrats about how to mitigate the consequences of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).  Both parties agree that the BCA has resulted in dangerous cuts to the defense budget. In addition, both President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress have called for a national security budget of $612 billion in fiscal year 2016, even though current law imposes a cap of $523 billion. 

To bridge the gap between the BCA caps and the President’s request, both sides propose to utilize wartime supplemental funding for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). Since OCO funding does not count toward the BCA caps, this fix should be relatively painless.  But this is the point where consensus breaks down.

President Obama requested $51 billion for OCO, while insisting that Congress revise the BCA caps upwards to provide the rest of the funding. To emphasize the point, Obama threatened to veto any spending bill that does not raise the caps.  Republicans countered with a budget resolution that gave the President the defense budget he wanted, but with $90 billion in the form of OCO and no adjustment to the caps. Simply stated, this is a debate over accounting methods.

This seemingly narrow debate, however, has become a proxy for a true clash of principles regarding the appropriate relationship between defense spending and domestic priorities. One position holds that national security has a unique importance among the responsibilities of the Federal government. The other assigns equal weight to domestic objectives.

In a completely unintentional manner, OCO became the fault line between these conflicting points of view. For one side, OCO represents an imperfect but necessary means of limiting the damage done to the U.S. military by the BCA caps. For the other, OCO is a regrettable loophole that enables those who prioritize defense to marginalize domestic programs. Thus, Senator Reid now warns that “the bill before us is designed to write an end-run around sequestration for the Department of Defense.”

For Mr. Reid, this concern justifies the tactic of holding defense spending hostage unless and until Republicans agree to increase domestic spending.  President Obama’s veto threats represent the same line of thinking. Mr. Reid’s latest call for obstruction reflects a desire to strengthen the President’s hand, especially after the House overwhelmingly approved its version of the NDAA on mid-May, and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) reported its bill in a 22-4 vote.  Mr. Reid does not want to leave the President isolated against strong, bipartisan majorities.

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) spoke most openly about this tactic last week when he told Politico that “there has to be, in the next two or three weeks, a moment when we prevent moving to either defense appropriations or defense authorizations in order to make the point that reinforces the President’s veto threat and in order to compel a negotiation over the future of the budget.”

Unfortunately, this logic misrepresents the role of the NDAA and jeopardizes a defense spending boost that both parties agree is necessary.

Regardless of what’s in the NDAA, only an appropriations bill can provide the Defense Department with the funding it needs. “You don’t spend any money with an authorization bill,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) reminded Politico. Or as SASC Chairman John McCain put it, the NDAA “is a policy bill. It does not spend a dollar.”

The NDAA indeed sets policy for the Armed Forces.  For example, this year’s bill would enact some reforms to the military pension system crafted by a bipartisan commission of experts.  Other provisions in this year’s NDAA would reform the Pentagon’s acquisition system, which remains both expensive and slow.  Although the House and Senate bills offer different prescriptions for reform, the legislative process should give Congress an opportunity to resolve these differences.

Even if the defense authorization bills avoid a filibuster or veto, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) has offered an amendment that would fence off $38 billion of new Pentagon funding until Congress approves a commensurate increase for domestic programs. This approach would establish in law the defense budget’s status as a hostage to other priorities.

The Founders saw things differently, as the Washington Post noted in a recent editorial: “When all is said and done, national defense is a clear constitutional responsibility of the federal government; fully funding it should take priority.”

This is the principle that should guide Congress as it considers legislation intended to protect the United States from growing threats abroad.

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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