The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), front, the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47) and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage conduct a simulated strait transit.

The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), front, the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47) and the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Anchorage conduct a simulated strait transit. U.S. Navy photo

Congress’ Flabby Defense Budgets Aren’t Entirely Lawmakers’ Fault

The Obama administration’s national security strategy is too vague to promote efficient budgeting.

Much has been made of Congress’ inability to craft defense budgets that support the national defense strategy efficiently and effectively. But blame belongs to the White House as well: the current U.S. national security strategy is so sweeping and vague that it is difficult for Congress to agree on a way forward.

If the administration expects Congress to pass a budget that will allow the Defense Department to effectively pursue its goals, then the administration must start by presenting goals that are realistically attainable. Neither the National Security Strategy nor the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review make it easy to tell what, exactly, the United States’ security priorities are—besides doing everything, everywhere, all the time.

The NSS outlines eight priorities: Strengthen national defense; reinforce the homeland; combat the persistent threat of terrorism; build capacity to prevent conflict; prevent the spread of the use of weapons of mass destruction; confront climate change; assure access to shared spaces; and increase global health security. The goals laid out by the QDR are equally broad. It is hard to discern an operative strategy through such far-reaching and nebulous goals; it is easier to see that this strategy, taken at face value, is financially unsustainable.

If the administration cannot present a narrow, executable strategy, it drastically reduces Congress’ motivation to abolish the spending caps set in 2011 and negotiate a defense budget agreeable to both fiscal conservatives and defense hawks.

We can see this in the current state of play of defense-budget legislation. After the White House proposed a 2016 budget giving DOD $534 billion in base funding plus $51 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, the House and Senate responded by passing versions that set base spending at $523 billion plus $96 billion in OCO.

This approach appeased defense hawks, because it upped total defense spending by piling extra funds into the OCO budget—a discretionary fund that does not count against the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. It also placated fiscal conservatives by staying beneath the 2011 budget caps, thus making them feel fiscally responsible.

But claiming that it is somehow more responsible to spend money via the OCO fund rather through the base budget is simply backward. Moreover, OCO funding can’t be spent like regular base funding, handicapping the Pentagon’s ability to use the money efficiently.

Most importantly, the House and Senate versions do not repeal the 2011 Budget Control Act, which sets spending limits so onerous that the White House, through Defense Secretary Ash Carter, has vowed to veto any legislation that keeps the caps in place.

Even though the resolutions narrowly passed the House and Senate, the next few weeks will determine whether or not defense and budget hawks are able to give and take in order to reconcile their respective budgets. The vague and far-reaching defense goals presented by the administration will only make the reconciliation process more difficult.

Coming to an agreement by throwing money into the OCO fund in order to avoid budget caps is unwise. Not only does this defeat the purpose of the budget caps in the first place, it allows Congress to avoid making tough, but necessary, financial decisions. What’s more, an over-funded OCO account could encourage ill-advised adventures overseas. The United States should not continue to use war funding to avoid fiscal prioritization.

Avoiding this, however, requires strategic prioritization. This is a basic concept at which the United States has not historically excelled, and the defense documents released by the administration thus far demonstrate an unwillingness to prioritize certain objectives over others. Strengthening national defense, reinforcing the homeland, combating the threat of terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction fall into the category of high priority objectives and should be explicitly stated as part of the NSS. The remaining goals listed are no doubt important and should be pursued, but more responsibility must be placed on the shoulders of our allies and partners to ensure these goals are met. The United States cannot be the guarantor of global security in its entirety, in every corner of the world, and being rich does not mean having unlimited resources.

As reconciliation continues over the coming weeks, Congress must make tough decisions. To say a narrower, more clearly defined defense strategy from the White House would solve the budget impasse is a stretch. It would, however, be a good place to start.