When it comes to defense spending, fiscal hawks in the Republican Party are willing to make a big exception to their cost-cutting goals.
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) unveiled spending guidance Tuesday that promised fiscal discipline, but at the same time increased war funding by billions of dollars to get around spending caps mandated by law for 2016.
The Pentagon requested $51 billion in war funding for 2016, money that’s supposed to go toward overseas military operations, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. The House Budget Committee plan would boost that to $94 billion — but does not detail how the extra funds would be spent.
By doing this, the committee is able to say that it’s keeping the Defense Department’s base budget within spending caps set by the Budget Control Act. But really, lawmakers are merely shifting the money into an account where the spending caps don’t apply.
“In effect, the House Budget Committee is proposing to have their fiscal discipline and eat their defense increase at the same time,” said Gordon Adams, a senior White House budget official for national security under President Bill Clinton. He is also a columnist for Foreign Policy.
“If this is responsible governing, Congress style, the House Budget Committee has failed the test,” he said in an email.
Overall, the proposed budget would provide $613 billion for national defense — $90 billion more than the $523 billion as allowed under the bipartisan Budget Control Act. The spending plan also is $1 billion more than the White House requested, a fact the House Budget Committee is happy to promote because it gives the impression of a stronger commitment to national security than the Obama administration.
But the committee’s spending blueprint also shows the conflicting attitudes toward defense spending inside the Republican Party, as well as Price’s attempts to appease fiscal and security hawks who are at war over what each considers as a responsible defense budget.
With the economy on the upswing, warnings about U.S. debt and deficits have died down since they reached their recent peak in 2011, when Congress created a so-called supercommittee to tackle the problems. But the House Budget Committee is determined to put them front and center again.
The plan resurrects a famous quote from retired Adm. Mike Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011 said U.S. debt is “the single, biggest threat to our national security.”
The committee argues that government spending is out of control and needs to be scaled back.
“We cannot and should not spend hundreds of billions of dollar every year that we do not have. It is fundamentally unfair to our kids and grandkids for today’s policymakers to be so undisciplined and to ignore difficult decisions,” the plan says.
Before Tuesday, the committee was expected to apply this thinking to the defense budget, proposing cuts to keep it within the spending caps. Instead, the budget committee caved to pressure from defense hawks — led by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee — and rather than cut the base budget, simply transferred the money to the war funding bill.
This way, the budget committee can say its proposal is in step with the bipartisan Budget Control Act. The separate war spending bill — known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund — is not subject to the spending caps.
The committee justified its budget gimmick by saying it funds the Pentagon at a higher level — as the Obama administration wants — without triggering sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that would take place if the caps are exceeded.
Otherwise, Congress would have to alter or repeal the Budget Control Act to fund defense at the levels requested by the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images