One of the most basic responsibilities of the U.S. government—if not the most basic—is providing for the national defense. What this general phrase means is subject to interpretation depending on whether you happen to be a defense hawk or a fiscal hawk in the Tea Party mold, but the concept is nonetheless self-explanatory: to be safe, prosperous and a stalwart ally to friends around the world, politicians in Washington need to ensure that the U.S. armed forces have the tools, money, and flexibility to do their job.
While this may sound like a simple prescription and something Republicans and Democrats could agree on (who, after all, wants a U.S. military that is weak and decrepit?), providing for the common defense has deteriorated into another partisan issue. Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration refuse to contemplate more money for defense unless congressional Republicans allow a similar increase in nondefense spending. Republicans, meanwhile, view the 1:1 ratio as not only adding to America’s ever-growing national debt, but a scheme that places leftist politics above national-security needs.
As is so often the case, which side is being principled and which side is playing politics depends on which political party you happen to support.
The fight over defense spending almost resulted in another federal government shutdown last year. Indeed, before Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, the risk of the second shutdown in three years was very much on the table. Fortunately, the BCA was a vehicle that granted both parties a win—Democrats received the additional nondefense money that they were demanding, and Republicans in exchange were able to avoid a return to sequester levels that most defense experts inside the Beltway consider a national-security threat to be avoided at all costs.
Unfortunately, the fight over the defense budget is set to once again be one the biggest squabbles in Congress this year. The fact that the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by a 60-2 margin doesn’t do the story justice. While Chairman Mac Thornberry is dressing up the HASC-version of the bill as a bipartisan accomplishment, the reality is that House and Senate Democrats are very troubled that Republicans are attempting to tap into Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds to resource items in the base budget that the Defense Department isn’t requesting. Chairman Thornberry has argued strongly that transferring $18 billion from OCO into the base budget is absolutely necessary if the U.S. military is to be restored to full readiness. For Defense Secretary Ash Carter, however, decreasing a wartime account specifically designated for wartime spending during a time of war is the height of irresponsibility.
What Chairman Thornberry is doing, Carter said, is not only against the spirit of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement but also, more importantly, detrimental to the special-operations personnel and military advisers currently in the field against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. “It’s another road to nowhere, with uncertain chances of ever becoming law, and a high probability of leading to more gridlock and another continuing resolution,” remarked Carter. “I cannot support such maneuvers as secretary of defense.”
Todd Harrison, the go-to analyst on all things related to the defense budget, is not at all pleased with what the House Republicans are doing. In an email to me, Harrison paints a picture of a Congress that is returning to the very same budgetary gimmicks that almost sunk the defense authorization bill last year. “Using OCO to boost the base defense budget is certainly not a new trick—both the administration and congress have been doing it since the BCA was enacted,” Harrison wrote. “The difference now is the magnitude and how explicit it has become. It is an irresponsible way to manage the budget simply because OCO funding does not come with a plan for future years.” In other words, the House Armed Services Committee is hoping that the next president of the United States will be able to pass a wartime supplemental to make up for the $18 billion shortfall.
Whether we like it or not, expect the White House and a Republican-dominated Congress to return to the brink over defense spending. If public record is any indication, the Obama administration will not allow Republicans to increase the base budget by using OCO funds. It will be up to Republicans to either swallow their pride or press on—hoping all the while that the political heat during an extra-hot election year forces the White House to relent.
Daniel R. DePetris is an associate analyst at the Raddington Group. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.
Image: Marines playing tug-of-war. Flickr/U.S. Marine Corps. CC BY-NC 2.0.