Prioritize defense spending to end bad budget deals

By Kurt Couchman

With the elections mercifully behind us, Congress faces a lame duck session with the most ideological president in the modern era. Unfortunately for advocates of fiscal responsibility and those hoping to prioritize defense resources, another bad budget deal remains possible.

In 2013, then-Budget Committee chairs Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) negotiated the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which delayed sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) by four months and increased spending subject to the caps by $45 billion in fiscal year 2014 and by $18 billion in FY 2015. Though some offsets were gimmicks, most House Republicans supported it, but Senate Republicans -- along with outside conservative organizations and think tanks -- overwhelmingly opposed it. As one observer noted, “This deal is possible only because there are many Republicans who really hate the defense cuts.”

Shortly after fiscal year 2016 began, then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put forward the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which would raise defense and nondefense discretionary spending by $25 billion each for fiscal year 2016 and $15 billion each for fiscal year 2017 without being offset with real savings. This time, roughly two-thirds of House and Senate Republicans opposed it, and Democrats in both houses unanimously supported it.

One prominent Republican made it clear that he and other increase-defense-spending-at-all-costs-hawks were prepared to join Democrats to send the agreement to President Obama’s desk. Just six months before, these same hawks had forced the Budget Committee to remove language in the proposed budget resolution that would have required the House Armed Services Committee to find minor savings.

That coalition of Democrats and defense-spending Republicans, however, doomed the budget process for fiscal year 2017. In fact, a budget resolution was never brought to the floor for a vote due to the toxic deal Speaker Boehner had negotiated. The annual appropriations process then ground to a halt

Now the same borrow-and-spend coalition of Democrats and Republicans is preparing to force through additional spending for both defense and nondefense programs during the lame duck session or early in the new year. Without real offsets, such a deal will strangle the FY 2018 budget process. This ongoing dysfunction could easily continue until the budget caps expire at the end of FY 2021.

Meanwhile, Congress wonders why it has the lowest approval rating in history.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not all defense spending is equally important. Reducing spending on low-priority items could easily free up the resources needed for readiness and modernization of our military forces.

The U.S. taxpayer underwrites the defense of our prosperous allies in Europe and the Pacific Rim. Yes, some of those countries pay a small fraction of the overall costs, but forcing patriotic Americans to be mercenaries for other countries’ defenses is a breach of faith with our fellow citizens. It also makes the world more dangerous by letting our allies’ capabilities atrophy.

Back at home, every service branch has more basing capacity than it needs. The Navy has an excess of about 7 percent each, according to recent Department of Defense estimates. The Air Force and the Army each have roughly 30 percent more than they need. Excess infrastructure may be even greater, but Congress won’t let the Department of Defense conduct the detailed studies that begin the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, so the true potential savings are unknown. In fact, House leaders have blocked amendments to let the process get started from even being considered.

Abroad, we find ourselves funding multiple wars and interventions that are not within America’s best interest and have not been voted on by Congress. President Obama is acting without a valid congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) in multiple countries. The 2001 AUMF against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks simply isn’t applicable outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the 2002 AUMF against the government of Iraq doesn’t work when we’re actually allying with the government of Iraq to fight ISIS.

This administration is waging multiple illegal wars, and Congress has abdicated its responsibility to either approve a new AUMF that fits present needs or to check an overreaching president. From a fiscal perspective, letting the regional actors contain and defeat the Islamic State would reduce spending needs by billions as well.

Many other options for reducing spending without reducing security exist. Some may even increase our security. As the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, famously said, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”

Maybe some budget deal is inevitable. Maybe not. Either way, the defense authorization committees can’t keep getting a free pass on modernizing and streamlining our armed forces to meet current threats in a judicious way.

The failure to set priorities and rebalance our defense strategy is no longer financially or politically affordable.

Kurt Couchman is the Vice President of Public Policy at Defense Priorities. Prior to joining Defense Priorities, he served in various legislative capacities on Capitol Hill and conducted legislative affairs for the Cato Institute.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on November 14, 2016. Read more HERE