By Russell Rumbaugh
President Obama’s budget request was released last week with some dramatic proposals, including raising taxes and changing how Social Security is calculated. The dramatic changes are meant as the framework for a deal to finally resolve the budget fights that have been running since 2010.
But the budgets concerning national security are not terribly dramatic. Since national security cannot help drive a deal, the defense and international affairs budgets are status quo budgets, avoiding changes that might be opposed by the executive agencies and so open another front in the budget battles.
No one ever expected international affairs funding to be a factor in the budget debates, and sure enough it has not been. On the other hand, defense spending was supposed to be a critical part of the budget battles; the specter of gutting our national security was to drive both sides – especially Republicans-to reach a deal on the broader issues. But when sequester went into effect in March, it was clear defense would not be a critical part of the budget battles.
With nothing to add to the broader budget fight, the defense and international affairs budgets avoid making hard choices about how the agencies execute our national security. Instead of grappling with dramatically lower national security funding, the president’s budget request assumes a budget deal will be reached and the sequester cuts will be restored, just like the Senate and the House did in their budgets passed last month.
There are significant changes within the budgets, but changes directed more at Congress than the executive agencies. The defense budget calls for several changes that face stiff resistance in Congress: lower military pay raises, increased health care costs for retirees, and base closings. Congress does not like such proposals because they affect large numbers of voters. But they are popular within the Pentagon because they free up resources for other programs.
A similar story holds true in the international affairs budget. The biggest change is moving food aid from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a long-sought goal in the executive branch. But such a move is opposed by members of Congress from farm states who see the food aid program as an outlet for their states’ produce.
Unfortunately, one of the casualties of this status quo approach to budgets is the possibility of rebalancing between the Defense Department and State Department. The first deal in these budget fights – back in 2011 – divided the government’s discretionary spending between security and non-security rather than defense and non-defense as it has traditionally been. That meant that both defense and international affairs spending explicitly were considered national security funding.
To ensure defense spending served as a forcing function, when the automatic spending reductions kicked in, the divisions reverted to defense and non-defense. Last year, the president’s budget had ignored this change, containing proposals that added up only under the security and non-security limits, which allowed the president to request a significant international affairs increase.
This year – though the budget request still ignores the automatic reductions that are technically already in place – it accepts the defense and non-defense limits. That means the budget request acknowledges one part of the current law and ignores another. What unites the two choices is the political calculus: both avoid scenarios that would force hard choices.
It appears that until the broader budget fights are solved, the fights within the national security budgets will not be waged. Too bad, as some of those fights would better prepare our defense and international agencies to advance U.S. interests in an age of fiscal austerity.