The Skeptics

Lawmakers Are Ready to Rip the Defense Budget Apart

Scroll through that remarkable document called the U.S. Constitution, and you’ll quickly find Article I, Section 8. Scroll down further, and you’ll discover one of the most important responsibilities of the legislative branch: “The Congress shall have Power . . . to raise and support Armies . . . [and] To provide and maintain a Navy.”

It sounds like a simple prescription, guidance that the U.S. Congress would have no trouble fulfilling every year. Who in their right mind, after all, opposes raising an army, maintaining a navy, maintaining the capabilities of the U.S. Armed Forces, and providing American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the resources and equipment they need to defend the United States from attack? Even somebody as left wing as former congressman Dennis Kucinich wouldn’t have a problem with that!

Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. Everybody in Washington, from Capitol Hill and major weapons manufacturers to the Joint Chiefs of Staff have their own opinions and recommendations about what the armed forces need, how large the pot of money should be, and where that money should be allocated. Minus a batch of fiscal conservatives in the House of Representatives who have the gall of questioning whether the Pentagon already has enough money to operate sufficiently, Washington is a town always looking to dump more cash into the generals’ coffers. It’s one of the reasons why so many in both political parties revile the Budget Control Act (BCA) and sequestration—any mechanism that keeps defense spending under arbitrary caps is hammered as strategically foolish and a dangerous way to maintain the armed services.

Ever since the BCA was signed into law, Republican lawmakers have attempted to eliminate the sequester mechanism entirely. As one would expect, the congressional armed services committees have earned a reputation for marking up defense policy bills as if sequestration never even happened in the first place. The panels call for tens of billions of dollars above the spending caps, hoping that their colleagues on other committees will agree to beef up the Pentagon’s resources. Those figures are eventually negotiated downward to a more politically manageable level, but if it weren’t for the persistence of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the two-year budget agreement that dictated discretionary spending levels until last month would likely have been lower. Defense hawks also used their power in Congress this spring to add an additional $15 billion for defense spending through September 2017. It’s a trend that Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, the lawmakers who chair the two committees, would love to continue at an even larger level.

Many of us prefer to paint Washington as a place where Republicans and Democrats are on two separate sides of the line, engaging in a constant state of warfare. Defense spending, however, is an issue that can split parties internally. Defense hawks on the armed services committees go to war with fiscal conservatives on the budget and appropriations committees. People like Thornberry propose a defense authorization bill that is over $25 billion above what a Republican-controlled White House requests—a hike that lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus view as a nonstarter absent a $20 billion cut somewhere else in the discretionary budget. And congressional Democrats, knowing full well where the cuts would come from, refuse to cooperate in the process—threatening to block the bill unless the GOP provides an equal amount of money for domestic priorities.

The whole budget process, to put it moderately, is a mess.

Which number the Republicans will settle on this year is up in the air. Republicans on the House Budget Committee have reportedly agreed to a $620 billion defense budget (not including overseas contingency operations, or OCO), which the House and Senate Armed Services Committees criticized as inadequate to what the U.S. military needs after years of spending reductions. As usual, OCO—an account tailored nearly a decade ago to speed up the provision of war-related funds to American soldiers in the field—will be filled to the brim with more defense dollars without having to worry about those pesky budget caps. When the debate comes to the Senate floor, senators will file hundreds of amendments to the bill, betting that they can extract a few more combat aircraft into the inventory or authorize several thousand more Marines onto the payroll. Everything is up for negotiation.

But one thing is pretty certain: before the GOP can haggle with its Democratic colleagues, they need to get on the same page with one another.

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