The House of Representatives closed out the week by adopting their fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. And while the watchword in Washington has been “cut” for some time, this bill heads in the opposite direction. The bill authorizes $552 billion in defense spending next year – $54 billion more than what bipartisan majorities agreed to under current law in the Budget Control Act of 2011. In addition, the bill adds $5 billion on top of the $80 billion the Pentagon requested for the Overseas Contingency Operations account. So while the nation is scaling back activities in Afghanistan, Congress wants to ramp up spending in this area.
The bill is unlikely to become law, certainly not as written. The President has already issued a veto threat and the Senate has a different (but still wasteful) approach. But that doesn’t mean that the bill won’t have significant negative consequences.
Fantasy budgeting has a real impact when it crashes into reality. Instead of either living within the lower spending levels Congress already enacted or finding a fiscally responsible solution, lawmakers are approaching the situation like little children with hands over their ears yelling “I can’t hear you” repeatedly. Then when the budget caps hit, lawmakers lament that cuts are not targeted or cut certain areas too deeply, when their inaction is what caused the impact.
Defending his amendment to eliminate the extra OCO cash Congress provided, Rep. Woodall (R-GA) observed, “I’m tired of living in a town where if you don’t like the rules, you find a way around them.” Or simply ignore them until it’s too late.
There were several amendments to help the Pentagon get its budgetary house in order. They included: a $60 billion cut to bring the overall spending in line with the levels called for in statute; the aforementioned $5 billion reduction to OCO to bring it in line with what the Pentagon actually asked for; a provision to stop the National Guard from sponsoring NASCAR and professional wrestling; allowing the Navy to decide whether they wanted 10 or 11 aircraft carriers; reducing troop levels in Europe; and requiring that the missile defense system being implemented in Alaska actually works before throwing more cash at it. All of them failed.
This was pretty much by design. Debate on the floor of the House is governed by a “rule” that is adopted specific to each bill being considered. The Rules Committee drafts the rule and controls what amendments can be offered on the floor. The majority will often disallow politically difficult amendments and those they don’t like that have a decent shot at passing. So several pro-taxpayer amendments never made it to the floor. That club included amendments that would: cut funding for weapons systems the Pentagon doesn’t want (M1 Abrams upgrades); increase burden sharing by our allies (requiring NATO allies to pay half the cost of modernizing the B61); reduce the number of General and Flag officers to the level directed by then-Defense Secretary Gates; and one to limit the funding for the Littoral Combat Ship until the procurement has feasible and fully-defined requirements, independent cost-estimates, and a realistic schedule.
Taxpayers deserve better than this. At the end of the nine year period of spending caps under the Budget Control Act, the defense budget will be at the level it was in 2007. Nobody seemed to think more than half a trillion dollars was too little defense spending then. It certainly wouldn’t be now. Instead of saving spending sacred cows, lawmakers should be making targeted and smart Pentagon budget cuts. Spending more won’t make us safer, but spending smarter will make us stronger.