FPI Bulletin: Veto Threat Hangs Over Defense Legislation

May 22, 2015

Despite a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill, the U.S. military is no closer to having the resources it requires to defend the nation. So long as the Budget Control Act (BCA) remains in force, including its provisions for sequestration, the normal appropriations process cannot fix what ails the Armed Forces. President Obama is worsening this impasse by threatening to veto any bill that provides additional funding for the Department of Defense without a comparable plus-up for domestic programs. As a result, the Armed Forces may not get even modest relief from the deep cuts they face in the coming fiscal year.

At the beginning of this month, Congress passed a budget resolution for the first time in six years. The resolution called for an additional $38 billion of defense spending compared to the previous year. Instead of providing these funds as part of DOD’s regular or “base” budget, the resolution added them to the wartime supplemental account known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. Since OCO does not count toward the BCA spending caps, this tactic could, in theory, allow Congress to spend more on defense without changing the law. In response, the administration says it simply will not support additional defense spending unless Congress matches that money, dollar for dollar, with additional funding for domestic programs. By threatening a veto, the President hopes to secure such a compromise.

Regardless of the veto threat, a budget resolution provides marching orders for the authorizing and appropriating committees. In keeping with the resolution, the House Armed Services Committee approved a bill calling for a $613 billion defense budget for FY16, including an extra $38 billion in the OCO account. The bill passed by a solid 269-151 margin on the House floor, yet some of the ‘no’ votes came as a surprise. For example, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, asserted that additions to the OCO account are a “dead-end approach” because of Obama’s opposition. Smith has a reputation for bipartisanship and has voted in the past for the majority’s authorization bills. His opposition suggests that House Democrats firmly support the President’s plan to secure a deal by threatening a veto.

Events in the Senate are proceeding on the same track as those in the House. The Armed Services Committee approved a bill with the same spending targets as its House companion. While the committee approved the bill on a bipartisan vote of 22-4, one of the dissenting four was ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Like Rep. Smith, Sen. Reed has a reputation for bipartisanship and for being a staunch advocate of the military. Reed made it very clear that the purpose of his dissent was to create pressure on Republicans to negotiate an agreement. To that end, he offered an amendment that would have fenced off the additional $38 billion of OCO funding until it was matched, dollar for dollar, by additional spending on domestic programs.

The political dynamics of the appropriations process will mirror those of the authorization process. This week, the House Appropriations Committee released its defense bill. Like the House and Senate authorization bills, it relies on additional OCO funding to circumvent BCA spending caps. There are signs that Republicans know how this game will play out. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) has responsibility for managing the defense appropriations bill through the House. While defending its contents, he also said, “I think in the final analysis there will be some sort of grand bargain.”

This is the outcome that defense experts have expected all along. In 2013, Republicans and Democrats resolved a similar impasse with the Ryan-Murray deal that provided the Pentagon with $22 billion of relief from sequestration while easing the burden on domestic programs by a similar amount. The deal was unpleasant in two ways. First of all, President Obama should not hold the defense budget hostage in order to extract concessions on the domestic front. As the editors of the Washington Post observe, “When all is said and done, national defense is a clear constitutional responsibility of the federal government; fully funding it should take priority.” Second, the deal itself provided far less than the Armed Forces truly needed. However, some relief from sequestration was far better than none at all, so pro-defense legislators had to defend a flawed agreement.
 
If there is another deal this year, it will be unpleasant in exactly the same ways. Yet given the new threats that have arisen since 2013, from ISIS to the invasion of Ukraine, there is a strong case for an agreement that discards the rigid formula of a one-for-one match, instead providing the Armed Forces with the resources they require, which is likely to result in a ratio of two-to-one or more.
 
Furthermore, even if an agreement is the only way to secure additional funding for the military, there is no need to seek such a compromise before the defense authorization and appropriations bills reach the President’s desk. Rather than accept the political costs of vetoing a bill intended to support the U.S. military, President Obama may reconcile himself to an agreement that departs from the one-for-one formula.
 
In the final analysis, writes Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, “a principled compromise that once again gives the military and national security its proper due is better than the chaos resulting from no compromise at all.” If Americans want a president who treats national security as his or her first priority, they will have to elect one in 2016.  Until then, short-term fixes are likely to remain the best option available.

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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