This past week, the House’s armed services committee wrote, and reported out, the $610 billion FY2017 spending bill (“defense authorization”). Unleashing itself from past constraints, it diverted for pork spending a big piece of a $90 billion fund – by a striking threat to short-change the troops in the ISIS and Afghan field, leaving them without authorized food or ammunition part=way into the fiscal year.
The unspoken logic for causing the troop support to lapse, had two cynical pillars. Chairman “Mac” Thornberry (R-Tex) can milk the fisc, in this election year, of $18 billion for the contractors in Representatives’ districts, fortifying the wastrels’ re-election. Second, in case Trump (or, for that matter, anyone else who was hawkish) got elected, the necessity of an early-2017 troop survival bill would arm Trump instantly, upon election, to ram through whatever U-turns he wants in military affairs.
Where is this below-the-radar funding shift? Excuse a bit of background. The spending caps (policed by “sequestration” across-the-board cuts), inherited from last year, sets the limit on military spending. Congressional Republicans oppose lifting the military cap, especially if, as Democrats insist, the price is also lifting the domestic cap.
Part of that defense budget goes to actual war funding (called the “Overseas Contingency Operations”) – funding for combat operations, not big-ticket military hardware. This OCO funding is accepted as a rough planning estimate of the cost of fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, fighting in Afghanistan, some forward positioning in Europe to warn Russia, and so forth.
However, Chairman Thornberry robbed the OCO funding of $18 billion to spend on long-term hardware purchases. The bill expressly provides that funding for actual war operations will lapse after six months.
Where does the shopping list come from? Partly, Chairman Thornberry goes to the Navy, Air Force, and Army extra “wish lists” (these are formally described as “unfunded requirement”). Every weaponry dollar on these wish lists was rejected even by the open-handed Defense Department – in other words, they are deemed unneeded when compared to what Defense decided it needed.
Here are the high notes for the overspending:
11 new, unsought F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The F-35s have been plagued with problems and doubts. The Defense Department weighed in budget terms how many to buy, but the services are pleased to have Thornberry bust the budget to buy them. The F-35s are produced by Lockheed in Ft. Worth, Texas, conveniently kin to Chairman Thornberry’s Panhandle district.
An East Coast missile defense that the Defense Department opposes. Maybe the Committee know more about the location of North Korea than the rest of us do.
A $2 billion boost in the shipbuilding budget, beyond what Defense asked. This includes another unsought Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) – a ship the Secretary of Defense has cut down in a blistering memo.
Overriding the Administration attempt at retiring Carrier Aircraft Wing 14. The Pentagon found there were not enough carriers to need this aircraft wing. It is not fully staffed and has not been activated since 2011. It is based in Lemoore, California, so its Congressman is David G. Valadao (R-CA), a member of the Appropriations Committee who will no doubt be able to use his post to help the funding.
The shipbuilding budget is the wedge for some naval plans both very ambitious – and expensively self-serving. The Chairman of the Seapower Subcommittee, who steered this spending through is Randy Forbes (R-Va.). He represents the suburbs of Hampton Roads, in the Navy’s most highly funded area in the country. Forbes commented that this bill “increases shipbuilding to $206 billion, $2.3 billion more than the President’s budget, and the highest level of shipbuilding since the Reagan-Lehman era, adjusting for inflation.” (Of course, that was at the peak of the naval rivalry with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when the U.S. Navy faced global confrontation with the Soviet Navy.)
Forbes continues, “With this legislation, we are . . . making a down payment on the 350-ship Navy we need for national defense.” 350 ships is a staggeringly high number to contemplate funding – budget busting as far as the eye can see. While we have not heard the candidates for President give detailed specifics about how they would spend more on defense, clearly, Chairman Randy Forbes has the vision and perspective to show them the way.