In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, the influential House Armed Services Committee voted to advance a $610 billion spending roadmap for the U.S. Defense Department in fiscal year 2017.
The national defense authorization act (NDAA) sets spending levels for all Pentagon efforts, including troop pay. Congress has passed the sprawling legislation for 54 straight years, and while the bill’s enormous price tag matches the topline asked for by President Obama, this year’s draft makes a gamble on funding that not even the Defense Department is thrilled about.
The legislation was approved around 2:30AM in a bipartisan 60-2 vote after a 16-hour marathon mark-up. It shifts $18 billion of the $58.8 billion the Pentagon requested for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund – commonly known as the war account – into the department’s normal operating budget. The money would pay for things like 11 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters ($1.5 billion) on top of the 63 requested by the military services and boost the Navy’s ship building account ($2 billion).
Armed Services chair Mac Thornberry (TX) and other panel Republicans are betting that the accounting maneuver will prompt a new president to ask Congress for an emergency supplemental fund to make up the funding shortfall, which, as currently proposed, shortchanges the account used to finance the war against ISIS and military operations in Afghanistan.
At the same time members were marking up the bill, the Pentagon’s chief was deriding the funding scheme.
“I have to say that this approach is deeply troubling and flawed for several reasons,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee on Wednesday.
“It is gambling with warfighting money at the time of war, proposing to cut off our troops' funding the places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year,” he said. “It would spend money on things that are not DOD's highest unfunded priorities across the joint force,” he added. “It buys force structure without the money to sustain it and keep it ready, effectively creating hollow force structure, and working against our efforts to restore readiness.”
The proposal “is another road to nowhere with uncertain chances of ever becoming law and a high probability of leading to more gridlock and another continuing resolution -- exactly the kind of terrible distraction we've seen for years that undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops from their family, baffles friends that emboldens foes,” according to Carter.
Besides creating uncertainty for the Pentagon, the funding proposal faces another risk, this time from fiscal hawks. Conservatives, led by the roughly 40 members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, scuttled a push by House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI) for a GOP federal budget because they wanted $30 billion shaved off the $1.8 trillion budget agreement Congress and the administration struck last year.
Coming off that victory, it’s difficult to imagine that fiscal conservatives would go along with an additional $18 billion request, even if it’s for the military. They likely would demand cuts to social programs, a non-starter with Democrats, thus ratcheting up the chances for Capitol Hill gridlock.
With the seemingly weekly announcement that the U.S. is committing more troops to the anti-ISIS fight, it’s possible the $18 billion shortfall could grow exponentially. The higher the price tag, the more likely there will be a split within the GOP.
There are other challenges as well.
The Senate Armed Services has yet to unveil its version of the NDAA. That draft could reject raiding the OCO account entirely and set up a major issue if and when the two bills are conferenced together. In a hearing on Thursday, committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) suggested he wasn’t wild about tapping OCO money.
In addition, leaving the question of funding up to the next president guarantees that the issue will become highly politicized should the time for a supplemental come around.
If Republicans don’t win back the White House, or lose control of one or both chamber of Congress, Democrats could give the shortfall another look and decide not to funnel the money into the war account. Such a move would open Democrats to GOP attacks that they don’t support the troops and the rancor on both sides would rise.
Conversely, should Republicans prevail on Election Day, Democrats would likely block a supplemental unless it came with matching funds for social programs, a strategy that paid off last year with the budget deal.
There will no doubt be many twists and turns between now and when a joint NDAA is approved by lawmakers, but for the time being Congress has given itself an $18 billion headache.
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