Bad ideas have a way of taking root in Washington. A generation’s attempts to solve problems in the U.S. economy run the gamut from that old Gerald Ford domestic program to “WIN (Whip Inflation Now!)” through the current Budget Control Act of 2011.
I’ve written about a particular gimmick to “solve” the budget squeeze on one military service that has been working its way into the federal budget process. The so-called “Sea-based Deterrence Fund” was established in last year’s Pentagon policy bill. The idea behind this fund is to take the cost of building the next generation of ballistic missile submarines out of the Navy’s budget and put it in the “Defense-wide” budget. In other words, the Navy wouldn’t have to pay for the new subs, relieving financial pressure on its shipbuilding budget, which would remain at roughly $16 billion per year.
The reasoning behind this is nonsensical: because the submarines are “national assets,” the responsibility for buying them does not rest with the Navy. I was happy to see this argument rejected and some budgetary discipline brought to bear when the House Appropriations Committee included language in the fiscal year 2016 Pentagon spending bill that would have forbidden money from being transferred to this new fund.
But, because bad ideas to tend to quickly put down roots, during floor consideration of that bill an amendment was offered to remove the prohibitive language.
The debate on the House floor, if nothing else, showed the full spectrum of the arguments about this idea. Proponents, like Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican who represents the shipbuilding and Navy-heavy 4th Congressional District of Virginia, said, “This is a national priority.” Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, another state where shipbuilding reigns supreme, said, “The fact of the matter is this is an asset that is not just the Navy’s; it is the country’s.”
Rep. Jim Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island (ditto on the shipbuilding interests in that state), said, “This is a national priority. The deterrence fund allows us to treat it accordingly and avoid pressuring the Navy out of badly needed investments in other ships and capabilities.” Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., added, “This makes sure that, down the road, we are not forced to choose between building a replacement ballistic missile submarine or a destroyer or an aircraft carrier.”
Noticing a pattern in these comments? Every single member who spoke in favor of an amendment to allow transfers into this new account comes from a state with major shipbuilding industries. In fact, Courtney ended his speech on the floor with, “Support this amendment … and protect the shipbuilding industrial base of this country.”
But no one is arguing to undermine the shipbuilding base of this country; as I’ve pointed out before, this debate is about making choices transparent. If we need to buy expensive submarines, we need to know how to pay for them.
But the second pattern to note is this idea that the submarines are a national asset. So the Air Force’s long-range bombers aren’t national assets? Aren’t aircraft carriers also national assets? Why shouldn’t they be purchased out of the Defense-wide accounts? People who believe in a little fiscal discipline know the answer to that. Because if we start down this road, every single major weapons procurement program could qualify as a “national asset.”
Pretty soon the military services won’t be buying any major systems out of their own budgets. That is unsustainable. So I was pleased to see several members speak against the amendment and caution against this budgeting gambit, such as Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Pete Visclosky, D-Ind.
Unfortunately, sensible fiscal arguments did not carry the day. Sixty-three fiscal conservatives on the Republican side of the aisle voted against setting up this account, though, while three weeks earlier only four such members had voted for an amendment that would have had the same effect. I’m pleased to see that progress.
Even more gratifying is that the Senate Appropriations Committee, during its consideration of the Pentagon spending bill for next year, declined to put any money into the fund. This keeps the issue alive, meaning there is more time to educate members of Congress about the folly of the Sea-based Deterrence Fund before it puts down any more roots.