House NDAA Budget Gimmick

Blog Articles · May 10, 2016 · Budget and Spending

Next week the House will take up the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), setting forth funding authorization levels and laws that guide our Department of Defense for the upcoming fiscal year. Late last month, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed the bill out of committee that authorizes base defense spending at $551 billion and includes $59 for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which qualifies as emergency spending and therefore is not subject to the recently revised budget caps.

While the title of this additional funding would suggest that it is solely for "overseas operations," the truth is that this emergency spending stream has often been used for non-emergency base defense priorities that should be funded in the regular defense budget. Just last year Heritage Action's CEO Mike Needham and Steve Bucci, former Heritage Foundation Director of the Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy Studies, wrote about the use of OCO as an emergency funding gimmick:

"Many conservatives understand the need to boost defense spending above the depressed levels of recent years. But rather than raise defense spending to appropriate levels and offset the increase by authentic, dollar-for-dollar cuts in domestic discretionary spending and structural reforms to mandatory programs, this budget proposal tries to avoid the problem by going around the normal order. That tactic will actually jeopardize our military."

This year, HASC is unfortunately taking this funding gimmick to the next level to increase defense spending to deal with readiness concerns facing our military. To be clear, there are real military readiness issues as highlighted by The Heritage Foundation Index of Military Strength:

"The consistent decline in funding and the consequent shrinking of the force are putting it under significant pressure. Essential maintenance is being deferred; fewer units (mostly the Navy's platforms and the Special Operations Forces community) are being cycled through operational deployments more often and for longer periods; and old equipment is being extended while programmed replacements are problematic. The cumulative effect of such factors has resulted in a U.S. military that is marginally able to meet the demands of defending America's vital national interests."

Yet, as real as these readiness challenges are they must be dealt with in a fiscally responsible way. As former Chairman of the Joints Chief, Admiral Mike Mullen famously said, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt." Below is a chart explaining the difference between the Obama Administration request and the HASC proposal.

FY 2017 Defense Funding Chart

Obama Admin Request HASC NDAA Proposal
Base Defense Funding $551 Billion $551 Billion
Total OCO Funding $59 Billion $59 Billion
Real OCO Funding $54 Billion $36 Billion
Base Defense OCO Funding $5 Billion $23 Billion

This is bad for two reasons. First, politically it leaves House Republicans open to attacks that they are shortchanging our troops in the field in order to increase for the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is already advancing this argument, saying last week that there is a real "danger of underfunding our war effort, gambling with funding for our troops in places like Iraq and Syria."HASC reduces the funding needed for real, ongoing overseas operations and replaces it with base defense priorities to the tune of an extra $18 billion to increase the total defense topline number to $574 billion. While both of these plans on paper spend the same amount of money on defense, the HASC proposal effectively shortchanges ongoing overseas operations by limiting the availability of funding through only the Spring of 2017. In order for those operations to continue beyond that point there would be a need for a new emergency supplemental.

Second, there are very real concerns this approach will cause a funding dispute that could lead to yet another increase in overall spending and in particular non-defense discretionary spending. In fact, that is exactly what it is designed to do.

This similar scenario played out in last year's spending battle. Defense hawks used their clout in Congress to push for increased levels of defense spending, which they achieved in the Boehner-Obama budget deal passed in November. This deal was only struck because the Democrats demanded and achieved an agreement that for each new defense dollar there would be an additional non-defense dollar to match it. This alliance between Democrats, defense hawks, and some moderate Republicans (and appropriators) broke the 2011 spending caps that were one of the few measures in place keeping spending in check.

While the paint is barely dry on last fall's budget deal it is not hard to see how this same situation could play out again this year if HASC pursues this approach. Defense hawks will be quick to point out that the administration is not sticking to the agreement reached last year with regard to defense spending and that White House shortchanged real defense in OCO and they are just making up the difference. That may be true, but it highlights why backroom deals where the partners involved cannot agree on what the details of the deal were are a bad way to legislate. Democrats are likely to require additional domestic spending in order to accept these defense spending increases leading to the spending caps being broken yet again.

Our country needs its leaders to make serious choices and fight to live within our means. The Republican-controlled House should lead by example, and:

  1. Break this misguided approach to budgeting that equates defense dollars as equal to domestic spending dollars;
  2. Offset any needed increases to defense spending by decreasing non-defense discretionary or finding offsets in mandatory programs; and
  3. Make the case for why our military needs these resources and then take that case to the public to build support for it.

What Congress should not do, however, is intentionally set up a funding cliff that puts our troops at the mercy of a last-minute backroom deal. We've seen how those turn out.