Congress generally has little trouble achieving broad agreement on defense spending. One reason is a well-established and, indeed, almost reflexive belief that throwing more money at the Pentagon will solve the security challenges that America faces. That general inclination is still there; what is not there is agreement, especially among the ruling Republicans, on how to do it this time.
The party’s defense hawks seem perfectly willing to tap into an emergency war fund originally set up to underwrite American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party’s fiscal conservatives see this as a betrayal of agreed-upon budget targets.
In a 2011 deficit showdown, President Obama and Congressional Republicans agreed to severe budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years that would apply to both domestic and defense programs.
This Congress seems content to leave undisturbed the mandated cuts for domestic programs, many of which affect the poor and middle class, but Republicans as well as some Democrats are now seeking a hefty increase of as much as $100 billion in Pentagon spending from a base budget of $499 billion. The question is whether to do it honestly or not: whether to engage in a straightforward exercise that would require honestly confronting the 2011 budget agreement; or whether to pump more money into the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account, or O.C.O.
This would represent a further corruption of an account created to underwrite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but has since been used for purposes unrelated to these conflicts, like the bombing in Syria. What makes the account particularly useful to cynical legislators is that it is an off-budget fund that allows them to increase defense spending and break the caps they agreed to while insisting that they remain as fiscally upright as ever.
Disregarding the distinction between the normal defense budget and war spending in this way “would set the stage for O.C.O. to become a permanent slush fund for defense” and set a dangerous precedent, according to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The debate on how to proceed is playing out this week as the House and Senate votes on competing versions of a budget resolution. The Republicans are plainly divided on how to proceed, and where they eventually come out will tell a lot about the party’s professed allegiance to fiscal discipline ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
In fiscal 2015-16, President Obama has proposed a base budget of $534 billion for the Pentagon (thus also exceeding the budget caps) and an O.C.O. account of $51 billion. Unlike the Republicans, he also would increase financing for some domestic programs. Republicans in the House and Senate armed services committees have now proposed budgets consistent with the $499 billion in the 2011 budget agreement but suggested raising the O.C.O. account from Mr. Obama’s $51 billion to around $90 billion.
The nation’s security needs are not static. Right now, for instance, America is facing serious new security threats, including Islamic State forces marauding across Iraq and Syria, and there is every reason for the country to rethink the appropriate level of defense spending.
Yet those who argue for funneling billions more to the Pentagon stand on very shaky ground when billions of dollars have been squandered on troubled weapons like the F-35 fighter jet, when billions more have been lost to waste and corruption in Afghanistan, and when the budget proposals from both Mr. Obama and Congress waste billions more on an overgrown nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, Congress has consistently refused to finance the State Department at the level needed to show a commitment to robust diplomacy through its staff, embassies and programs promoting democracy, trade, and the resolution of numerous conflicts around the world.
If lawmakers want to raise defense spending, they should address those issues first and then honestly own up to the fact that any major increase would require a significant and transparent rewriting of past agreements.