What’s the political penalty for the Republican-led Congress, aided by some Democrats, using a gimmick to circumvent the defense spending cuts they had legislated?
Probably none, because the public either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
In August 2011, Republicans agreed to raise the U.S. debt limit and avoid a default on the country’s obligations. The price exacted for that deal was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which passed overwhelmingly in both houses.
The law mandated spending cuts of $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years — either through the proposals of a bipartisan “supercommittee” or, if that group of lawmakers failed to reach consensus, across-the-board spending cuts. Known as sequestration, the mandated cuts were designed to hit defense and non-defense spending.
The supercommittee failed when Republicans refused to countenance any tax increases, so sequestration went into effect beginning with fiscal 2013 spending. It hit hard at the Defense Department, where some senior officials thought their funds would somehow be protected.
Since then, one-year defense budget extensions, often passed late, have had a big impact, as Lt. Gen. James M. Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, explained to a Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
“We’ve lost $25 [billion] to $30 billion worth of buying power” from what was anticipated in 2012, Holmes said. That has left “a hole in our ability to modernize the forces we have and our ability to maintain our readiness and in our ability to plan for the future.”
Here is where the gimmick comes in.
President Obama, in presenting his fiscal 2016 budget, said openly he was exceeding the BCA caps by $75 billion, with half to go to defense spending and the other half to non-defense expenditures.
His $561 billion base budget for the Defense Department is $38 billion above the $523 billion cap for fiscal 2016 set by the 2011 law.
Obama is also seeking $51 billion for what is called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is considered “emergency funding” and not included in sequestration, and pays for fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained the administration’s position directly to the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. “I strongly support the president in requesting a defense budget above the artificial caps of the Budget Control Act,” he said.
However, the Republican-controlled House and Senate budget committees are taking a slightly different tack. They both have claimed to be sticking with the 2011 law’s cap, approving $523 billion for core Defense Department spending. That nod to principle satisfied their budget hawks.
But both chambers dramatically upped the proposed $51 billon in the OCO account, the Senate by that same $38 billion the president put directly into the core budget, and the House by even more, though it is expected to come into line with the Senate. That maneuver satisfied GOP defense hawks.
And so everyone’s happy.
But can OCO money be spent on core Pentagon programs? The budget resolution is not law, it is a planning document. The use of OCO is just a gimmick, although Congress could allow it on authorization and appropriation bills that do become law.
At the same time, Pentagon officials don’t like it because there is no guarantee those same funds will be there next year.
Asked about the OCO approach Carter said, “We need the budget that we have laid out not just in one year, but in the years to come. . . . This proposal [using OCO money] is a one-year-at-a-time thing [and] doesn’t work for national defense.”
There are other congressional moves that affect defense spending, including legislators forcing the Pentagon to spend on programs the military doesn’t want.
Last Thursday’s Senate hearing identified several that defense officials have argued would save billions over time, but which Congress has refused to accept, starting with the process called Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC).
That set up a system to allow the closure of excess military facilities around the country. For members of Congress it means closing bases that supply jobs and income to their constituents, and most of them automatically oppose anything that hits their districts.
Holmes said the Air Force has “about 30 percent excess capacity in terms of our infrastructure that we carry.” He added, “There’s no way a private business would carry 30 percent extra capacity in their infrastructure, maybe 5 percent, you might do it. Thirty percent? And I know BRAC is a four-letter word, but we have to start.”
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) spelled out what really blocks a future BRAC round during a March 11 Armed Services subcommittee hearing. Just thinking the Pentagon has a list of possible bases to close or reduce makes “everybody nervous, Kaine said, adding, “and there’s this massive collective check written out of public treasuries from states and localities to the lobbyists and the lawyer community to make the case” that their facilities should not be touched.
It’s getting more and more difficult to get legislators to speak honestly, and their handling of the defense budget is just another example. Writing that makes me recall the scene in “Casablanca” in which the actor Claude Rains says, “I’m shocked — shocked — to find that gambling is going on in here!”