Republicans hadn’t even finished patting themselves on the back for passing the first budget in six years — a resolution that would add nearly $40 billion to the Pentagon’s war fund request — when the Defense Department’s top brass slammed their “budget gimmick” as a “road to nowhere.”
Rather than addressing the looming budget caps that will snap back in January, the fiscal 2016 budget resolution the Senate passed Tuesday on a party-line vote uses the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations fund — a war chest not subject to the caps — to simply go around them. The budget conference report sets about $523 billion for national defense, plus roughly $90 billion for OCO, for a total of $613 billion.
President Obama requested $561 billion for national defense, plus $51 billion for OCO. Obama’s request was some $38 billion more than allowed by the Budget Control Act, but it was intended to force Congress to deal with the issue. Instead, the Republican plan made up the difference with OCO.
“While this approach clearly recognizes that the budget total we’ve requested is needed, the avenue it takes is just as clearly a road to nowhere,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. “The Joint Chiefs and I are concerned that if our congressional committees continue to advance this idea and don’t explore alternatives, then we’ll all be left holding the bag … This funding approach also reflects a narrow way of looking at our national security.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs, jumped off a question from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., about establishing a humanitarian safe zone in Syria, and followed Carter’s lead. He cited the “cognitive dissonance of talking about doing more in the world, when in fact we’re facing losing another $250 billion over the next five years.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., pointed out that the Republicans’ budget resolution gives the Pentagon more money than it requested. “Do you not want more money than you requested?” Blunt asked Carter.
“I think more broadly than that,” Carter said. “We think that the amount of money we have requested and the manner in which we have requested it meets the national security strategy of the United States.” He continued, “We need to get a longer horizon…You cannot do defense or national security with a one-year-at-a-time approach.”
Added Dempsey, “If sequestration-level cuts return next year, combined with a lack of flexibility to make the reforms we need … our nation’s current defense strategy will no longer be viable.”
Carter, though appointed by Obama, was expected to have a cozier relationship with the Republicans on the Hill, thanks to his long service in the Pentagon, his close ties to the defense industry, and his work on acquisition reform. But his warnings on Wednesday — though familiar — were in sharp contrast with the chest-bumping of the Republican majority over the budget conference report passed Tuesday, which they touted as showing the party’s strength on defense and national security.
Democrats criticized the OCO-heavy budget resolution. “There are efforts in the House and Senate to increase defense spending by using what is in fact a budget gimmick,” Durbin said. “I believe this effort is not the right way to address the problem.”
Even some fiscal hawks within the GOP expressed concern at plumping up the OCO fund instead of finding a real solution to the budget caps. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took to the floor ahead of the vote to urge a repeal of sequestration. But other defense hawks won out, citing the tumultuous global security climate.
The White House responded by reiterating its thinly veiled threat to veto a budget that does not solve the cap problem. “The President has made clear that he will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward, nor one that reverses sequestration for defense – whether explicitly or through backdoor gimmicks – without also reversing sequestration for non-defense,” a White House statement said.
The resolution passed Tuesday merely sets the overall spending levels. The real battle over the budget will play out in coming weeks, as appropriators hold hearings and write the full spending bills.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, warned, “I am deeply concerned what we passed yesterday … will result in allocations that will only trigger more gridlock and confrontation …. we are not heading for a good situation.” It seems we have two threats, she said: “The threats in the world you are sworn to protect and the threats we ourselves are imposing, the way we are dealing with our money.”