Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor not a moment too soon. The central theme of his speech was compelling and indisputable: “This Congress must again recognize that our national security is the first priority of this government. Our national-security strategy must drive our military budget, rather than the budget setting our strategy. The military budget must reflect the threats we face, rather than the budget defining those threats.” Unfortunately, the House budget released today utterly fails on this score.
The president has proposed a modest increase to $534 billion, which is better than nothing. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed have called for the full repeal of sequestration, which would raise base defense spending to $577 billion. I applaud and thank these veterans of both the Senate and our military for this correct and clear-eyed recommendation.
Yet, I also want to highlight their support for the recommendation of the National Defense Panel, which estimated that base defense spending for fiscal year 2016 should be $611 billion at a minimum. The National Defense Panel was a bipartisan group of eminent national-security experts convened by Congress to analyze the Quadrennial Defense Review. They unanimously concluded that then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s fiscal year 2012 budget was the proper starting point to analyze our current defense needs, for at least two reasons.
First, Secretary Gates had already initiated significant defense cuts and reforms totaling $478 billion. It’s hard to say, given those efforts, that his 2012 budget had left much fat in the Department of Defense.
Second, Secretary Gates and the Department assembled and submitted this budget in late 2010 and early 2011, or just months before the Budget Control Act with its draconian defense cuts became law. That budget therefore was the last time the Department was able to submit a threat- and strategy-based budget, instead of the budget-based strategies we’ve seen over the last four years.
Returning the defense budget to the pre-sequester levels but leaving in place the Gates budget is the bare minimum we should be doing, Cotton explained. “The defense budget is only 16% of all federal spending, an historic low and heading much lower if we don’t act. And using the broadest measure of affordability and national priorities, defense spending as a percentage of our economy, last year we spent only 3.5% of our national income on defense, which is approaching historic lows and may surpass them by 2019.” To do less would be to continue the irresponsible slide in readiness, the dangerous decrease in the size of each military service and the reductions in research and development.
But what does the House budget do? Precisely what Cotton warns we should not. The budget document, which does not address defense spending until halfway through (how’s that for a failure of priorities?), declares that “we adhere to the current law funding cap in Fiscal Year 2016 while increasing funding in the years to follow — spending at levels above the president’s suggested defense budget in the outyears beyond FY 2016, including $22 billion above the President’s Five Year Defense Plan and $151 billion above the ten-year totals. This would also be $387 billion above the ten year total under the current path.” And that leaves us dramatically below what the NDP says is required. It is still underfunding defense by tens of billions of dollars at a time that we are at war and face a plethora of new threats. To put this in perspective, over the 10-year window the Gates budget would spend $4T. The House budget and the Obama budget roughly $3.5T and the sequester/BCA budget about $3.3T. The House GOP, in other words, is planning to shortchange defense by $439B below teh Gates budget over 10 years.
Why does the House budget adhere to the caps under the Budget Control Act? You’ve got me. It would have to change current law to properly fund defense, the budget writers argue (!). Defenders of the budget argue that they have, in the past, passed legislation to do that but have been thwarted when the president demands tax hikes. However, the Senate is now in the GOP’s hands, and both houses should present their desired budget based on our current priorities, not a flawed BCA. Perhaps there is some horse-trading to be done down the road, but to give up entirely and embrace a weak-on-defense budget framework is foolish.
The document tries to fudge the amount for defense by adding to the off-budget Department of Defense’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund. That mechanism still leaves us below the necessary figure to meet our current defense needs. “Better than Obama” is no way to budget for national security.
Worse, the budget committee relies on a vaguely described gimmick: “The ‘Defense Readiness and Modernization Fund’ provides the mechanism by which Congress can responsibly allocate in a deficit-neutral way the resources the military needs to address our national security threats at home and abroad.” I don’t see how supposed budget hawks would favor introducing an irresponsible and opaque budget device. But if there is a need to allocate more resources to defense, why not do that right now — in the budget the committee is drafting? The committee lamely states, “With spending on a handful of federal mandatory programs plus net interest on our debt projected by the Congressional Budget Office to consume all revenue in less than twenty years, Congress must act to make structural entitlement reforms to save and strengthen those programs while finding savings that could go toward meeting our national security needs. ” That is the budget committee’s job.
To be clear, the sequester figure is $523 billion. According to outside defense budget gurus, the president has proposed a baseline defense budget of $561 billion and a OCO figure of $51 billion, for a total of $612 billion for this fiscal year; and the House GOP proposes a defense number of $523 billion plus $90 billion for the OCO for a total of $613 billion. In sum, the House GOP would give us virtually the same amount as the president’s total — a figure that bears no resemblance to our actual defense needs. Mackenzie Eaglen at the American Enterprise Institute explains, “While the House GOP budget blueprint takes pains to emphasize the importance of a strong defense repeatedly, and link it to a growing economy, the plan is wholly insufficient. Worse, it will give comfort to members who want to grow defense and shrink federal spending who think they’ve now ‘solved’ the problem, helped the military and can move on.” Even more troubling is their “solution,” she argues. “By seeking to nearly double emergency supplemental or war spending, Republicans are opening the door to having this money stripped later and closing the door to a real military buildup that is needed after a generation of neglect in modernization and a decade of declining readiness,” she says. “A dollar for the military in OCO is not the same as a dollar increase for defense in the base budget. These budgets buy different outcomes and effects. The emergency money is for mostly perishable items like readiness, maintenance, training, fuel and other war-related consumables or forward presence. The base budget is the only place where real modernization and recapitalization occurs in any significant way of our aging fleets of ships, aircraft and vehicles.” In sum, however well-intentioned, this budget effort is a belly flop.
Commentator Hugh Hewitt noted on Monday that “to double cross the base on defense spending would be an order of magnitude greater breach of faith. The GOP ran on rebuilding the nation’s defenses. That was the deal. We need more ships, aircraft, soldiers, sailors and Marines. The F-35 isn’t on schedule so we need more F-18 Super Hornets. The 11 carrier groups have to become a reality again, not just a number mandated in the law. . . [House Armed Services Committee] Chairman [Mac] Thornberry put the minimum need for 2016 at $577 billion and many think that number is low. But it is substantially over the cap called for by sequestration. A GOP congress simply has to break sequestration with regards to Defense and keep it in place everywhere else. That is the expectation of the party’s supporters. More importantly, that is the need of the nation. The country needs more, in fact, but that is a start.”
The House Budget Committee should go back to the drawing board. It has failed in its most essential duty — providing for the nation’s defense. It is both a policy and political disaster. If the country wanted lawmakers to skirt their responsibilities and hobble defense, they would have elected Democratic majorities in both houses.