FPI Bulletin: Senate Takes Center Stage In Defense Budget Showdown

June 19, 2015

Is defense the first priority of the Federal government, or is it a responsibility to be deferred until an array of domestic concerns is taken care of? This is the fundamental question at the heart of the defense budget showdown that is playing itself out in the Senate.

The showdown heated up yesterday, when a motion to proceed to the Defense Appropriations Act for 2016 failed to secure 60 votes. The vote split the upper house along party lines, resulting in a final tally of 50-45. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed a motion to reconsider so the issue could be revisited at a later time. For now, there is little prospect of passing an appropriations bill that repairs the extensive damage done to the U.S. military by the Budget Control Act and sequestration.

Yesterday’s roadblock in the Senate was the first part of a plan by the Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), to shut down the entire appropriations process until every new dollar of defense spending is matched by another dollar for domestic programs. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, told journalists that Democrats would paralyze the Senate by voting against all motions to proceed on all appropriations bills. Reid has even warned of an impending government shutdown.

Gridlock in the Senate was not inevitable. In the House, a bipartisan majority has already passed the Defense Appropriations Act, with 43 Democrats joining all but a handful of Republicans. There are substantive reasons that the bill garnered substantial Democratic support. In February, President Obama requested $612 billion for defense and related programs, or $38 billion more than what is allowed by the sequestration caps. The House bill, now in the Senate’s hands, would provide the $38 billion increase that the President has requested.

More broadly, senators from both parties agree with President Obama that sequestration-level funding deprives the Armed Forces of the investments required to modernize the force and maintain its readiness. Many Democrats also agree that defense spending does not drive the deficit. In the words of Senator Angus King (I-ME), “The growth in the budget right now is in mandatory programs, and particularly in health care costs: Medicare, Medicaid, Children's Health Program. That's what's driving the federal deficit. It's not defense.”

Although both the Obama administration and Democratic senators have criticized use of a type of wartime funding called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) to pay for the $38 billion increase, that feud is incidental to the current standoff.  As Senator Reid explained his position immediately before the defense appropriations vote yesterday – “we cannot, and we should not, fix one part of our government and not the other part.” 

President Obama has been even more blunt in a series of veto threats concerning the defense bills working their way through Congress, the most recent of which states that the President will not “accept fixes to defense without also fixing non-defense” spending.  Simply stated, the purpose is to hold the defense bill hostage for additional spending on domestic programs.

The Senate maneuvers are intended, in part, to spare President Obama the decision of whether to veto a bill that includes the $38 billion defense spending boost he has requested, along with popular items such as a pay raise for the troops.

This drama is unfolding against a real and rapidly approaching deadline – the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.  If the President and Congress do not finalize a defense appropriations bill by then, the Pentagon will be forced to operate on a short-term continuing resolution (CR), which imposes cumbersome restrictions on day-to-day operations at the Pentagon. Regrettably, this outcome has become habitual in Washington, with the Pentagon operating on a CR for 12 months across the three most recent fiscal years. In the worst case scenario, the federal government may be shut down, as Senator Reid has warned.

Amidst the rancor on in the Senate, one should remember that an additional $38 billion will do little to repair the almost $1 trillion of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act.  General Martin Dempsey, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even with the additional funds, the Defense Department would “remain at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk in our ability to execute the defense strategy.” From a budgetary perspective, the current showdown is a debate over a band-aid.

Nonetheless, an important principle is at stake. In response to one of President Obama’s many veto threats, the editors of the Washington Post observed, “When all is said and done, national defense is a clear constitutional responsibility of the federal government; fully funding it should take priority.” This principle deserves strong bipartisan support. If it is ignored, there is little hope for a long-term spending agreement that can actually repair the extensive damage being done to the U.S. Armed Forces.

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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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