The Budget Battle that Will Define This Congress Begins
Policy + Politics

The Budget Battle that Will Define This Congress Begins

The battle that will “define” the current Congress for the remainder of the year is getting under way, a top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee said Wednesday, as the GOP-led Congress and President Obama square off over spending on the military and national defense.

Missouri Sen. Roy Bunt, speaking at a legislative seminar hosted by the law firm BakerHostetler in Washington, said that threats from Democrats in Congress to block all individual appropriations bills until an agreement is negotiated on all appropriations mean that the fight over how and what the government should spend in Fiscal 2016 is now engaged.

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“That will define the major debate here for most of the rest of the year, I would think,” said Blunt, who sits on half a dozen Appropriations subcommittees.

“On my side we generally think it’s time to spend more money, with what’s going on in the world, on defense than we otherwise would spend…," and propose doing that under a provision of the Budget Control Act that allows us to do that because you can’t anticipate world events,” he said.

Blunt was referring to the controversial Overseas Contingency Operations fund – money allocated to fund unpredictable and unexpected costs arising from military deployments overseas. Money spent under OCO, as it is known, does not count against the mandatory budget caps that the Budget Control Act places on total defense and non-defense spending.

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Indeed, the first shot in the battle was fired when President Obama said that he would not sign an authorization that would allow OCO funding to be used for defense spending unrelated to fighting overseas.

“The president is threatening to veto now, if it gets to his desk, the Defense authorizing bill, which is exactly the amount of money he asked for. More than the law allows…We just funded it differently than he’d like to fund it,” Blunt said.

There’s the rub, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who followed Blunt on stage on Wednesday. Yes, he said, the president had requested an appropriation $38 billion above the limits set by the Budget Control Act, known as the sequester, but he also asked for an identical increase on the other side of the artificial spending divide: non-defense discretionary spending.

The Republicans’ effort to move the extra funding into OCO, and then free up OCO funds for non-overseas activity, means that they can claim to have kept defense spending under the caps, and say that there is no reason why non-defense should get a boost above the caps.

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“It’s just a backdoor way to try to rewrite the sequester in a way that increases defense unilaterally, without making important investments [in domestic programs],” said Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Bottom line, said Van Hollen,, “[The President] is not going to sign any appropriations bills that come out of Congress until we have an overall agreement on how much we’re going to increase defense by and how much we’re going to increase non-defense.”

“What the senate Democrats are saying is, we’re not going to start passing appropriations bills on the floor of the senate that have very high numbers for national security and defense-related operations until we get an agreement on what the appropriations for education, scientific research and infrastructure are going to be,” he said.

“Because if the president signs just the defense and national security levels, then there is no money left under the caps…for the other areas,” Van Hollen added.

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