The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will the weak-on-defense budget pass?

The Post reports: “House Republicans released a proposal Tuesday that would balance the budget in a decade by revamping Medicare and Medicaid, repealing the Affordable Care Act and making cuts in domestic programs. . . . [T]he biggest clash is likely to be between GOP budget hawks determined to reduce spending and defense hawks who want to bolster the Pentagon in the face of rising threats from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.”

While House leadership will go all out to pass the budget (which no Democrats will support) the budget —  which “technically rais[es] spending to more than $600 billion, but it does so by fiddling with funds for the war effort in the Middle East” — will face more opposition when it gets to the Senate. “That [overseas contingency operations] account is considered off the books for annual accounting, and [Sen. John] McCain called the proposal ‘not legitimate.’ He plans to mount an effort during the Senate debate to increase the regular Pentagon accounts but acknowledged Tuesday that anything is better than the alternative of leaving the current budget caps, known as sequestration, in effect.”

Outside defense experts are dismayed, to put it mildly, by the House effort. Many point out that the OCO account would have been required anyway just to handle the military efforts in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State. But those monies can’t be spent, as one expert put it, “to recapitalize the military in any serious way and of course since [the account] is a one-off, the Pentagon can’t really do any serious planning based on that increase.”

American Enterprise Institute defense budgeting expert Mackenzie Eaglen writes, “Without corresponding deficit reduction, reserve funds do not lead to increased spending. This means that while the House plan promises about $39 billion in OCO spending over the president’s request, about half of this increase will not materialize. Realistically, the Pentagon should expect no more than about $569 billion from the House budget between base and wartime spending—well under the $585 billion the president requested.” She observes, “Even if taken at face value, the OCO increase contained in the House budget will not make up for years of neglected Pentagon modernization and readiness. The reality is that the base budget and war spending accounts buy different outcomes and effects. Emergency funds buy mostly perishable items like readiness, maintenance, training, and war-related consumables like fuel. This makes OCO spending the equivalent of a sugar high. It contains empty calories that are rapidly consumed by ongoing operations, but does not provide for the long-term health of the military. Only robust and predictable base budgets—as the bipartisan National Defense Panel recommended—can provide long-term funding for readiness, force structure and modernization.”

Unfortunately, too many in Congress and on the right worship at the altar of the Budget Control Act, as if that is legitimately addressing — and is the only way to address — budget discipline. In fact, continuing to squeeze discretionary spending without meaningful tax reform (that could close loopholes and generate more revenue) and without meaningful entitlement reform (increasing the retirement age slowly over time, for example) only deprives the country of useful items (NIH, defense, infrastructure) while letting long-term debt accumulate year after year.

When fiscal hawks such as those on the Wall Street editorial board argue that “the caps are the best leverage Republicans have to extract reform concessions” or that they represent “the GOP’s single largest fiscal achievement since 2010 before negotiations,” they must be referring to some other political universe. The debt has continued to climb steadily, Republicans have gotten no “leverage” to pass more meaningful reforms and we continue to misdirect spending away from the poor to the middle and upper classes, who benefit disproportionately from entitlement spending. Moreover, it is simply absurd to argue for keeping the caps because “Mr. Obama isn’t going to use the military for much in his last two years no matter how much Congress spends.” Thunk. First, we are using the military against the Islamic State and may delay a drawdown in Afghanistan. And second, this entirely disregards the point raised above, namely that we need a reasonable and reliable long-term spending framework so that we can plan, develop appropriate systems, right-size our military and invest in research and modernization. We are repeating the pre-Reagan era mistake of hollowing out our armed forces. House and Senate members should oppose the budget and address the top priority of government, national security, without gimmicks, one-liners or wishful thinking.