Battle Over $534 Billion Defense Budget Could Get Ugly
Policy + Politics

Battle Over $534 Billion Defense Budget Could Get Ugly

Reuters/iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

The battle to eliminate a spending cap on future defense spending intensified on Tuesday in a very public way: The chairs of the Senate and House Armed Services committees warned that the GOP-controlled Congress risks jeopardizing national security unless more spending is authorized.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the U.S. faces what Henry Kissinger called the most “diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”

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Unless Congress agrees to approve President Obama’s request to lift statutory caps and a $534 billion defense budget request for fiscal 2016, Republicans will “share the blame for the national security failures that will inevitably result,” the two Republicans wrote.

In throwing down the gantlet to members of their own party, they also said, “How can Republicans – the party of Ronald Reagan and ‘peace through strength’—possibly justify a lower defense budget than that of President Obama?”

Their plea for unrestrained defense spending comes after a series of congressional hearings in which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and the chiefs of the military services argued strenuously for doing away with the spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

During his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, Carter said the American people were justified in being fed up with wasteful Pentagon spending. “The taxpayer cannot comprehend it, let alone support the defense budget [given] cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like,” he said. “This must stop.” 

Carter’s comments were unusual for a department that has wasted or squandered untold billions and not once provided a complete independent accounting of where its money has gone. Long-past controversies over $600 toilet seats and multi-million-dollar cost overruns on weaponry seem quaint by today’s standards, in light of cost overruns of $100 billion or more to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and tens of billions more for the highly flawed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).  

Unless the law is changed, the more restrictive spending caps would be forced by a sequester, or automatic across-the-board cuts.

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“We would have to change the shape and not just the size of our military, significantly affecting parts of our defense strategy,” Carter testified earlier this month. “We cannot meet sequester with further half-measures. If we’re stuck with sequestration’s budget cuts over the long term, our entire nation will have to live with the answers.”

But Republicans disagree over calls for an end to the caps, with defense advocates like McCain and Thornberry worried about military readiness and morale. Many fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, are wary of returning to runaway defense spending that would raise the deficit.

During a recent hearing of a House defense appropriations subcommittee, several influential lawmakers on both sides told Carter and other senior DOD officials that the caps are unlikely to be changed anytime soon.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) said that short of a miracle, the Budget Control Act funding levels will remain the law of the land. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) echoed that, saying that until the budget law is changed, lawmakers must abide by it.

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Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) told Carter, “I would beg you to be the person that says, ‘Tear up that president’s budget because it assumes that there’s no sequestration.’”

President Obama set the stage for the budget conflict in late January when he submitted a fiscal 2016 budget plan calling for a 7 percent increase in overall spending for defense and domestic programs above the statutory limits. All told, Obama’s blueprint includes about $74 billion more in “discretionary investments” than would be allowed under the caps and sequester.

With Obama’s approach, Congress would spend $534 billion next year on military operations, salaries and contracts – up $34 billion from the current base budget. It would also spend $51 billion more for overseas military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones.

In their op-ed, McCain and Thornberry argued there is no national security basis for sequestration, given the mounting terrorist threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Russian-backed invasion and annexation of portions of eastern Ukraine, and China’s more aggressive and coercive behavior in Asia.

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Left unchecked, the budget caps would force the Pentagon to cut defense by nearly $1 trillion in the next decade, seriously undermining the capabilities, readiness, morale and modernization of the armed services, the two lawmakers argue.

They also said government spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs is far more responsible for deficits and debt than defense spending.

Gordon Adams, a military expert and professor at American University, said that the fight among defense spending advocates and fiscal conservatives will likely lead to a compromise to slightly loosen caps on defense and non-defense spending.

Adams said despite the heated rhetoric of defense hawks, many lawmakers responsible for drafting budgets and spending bills are aware there is plenty of flexibility within the Pentagon to move funding around to avert serious cutbacks in operations – even with the caps in place.

“This is like a drama we’ve seen so many times before – everybody knows everybody else’s lines,” he said in an interview. “It seems to me it’s obvious we’re headed toward some agreement on the hill where they agree on a level for defense and a level for domestic that are slightly up from what’s in the ceiling right now.”

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