House adds cash for defense, but will funds survive the process?
In either a bold move or an exercise in fantasy, House Republicans, in the thick of an election year, are staking out a negotiating position that blows past budget caps they endorsed last year and adds money for programs across the .
And as legislative action turns toward the Democratic-controlled Senate in the coming weeks, where the spending mandates will undoubtedly be upheld, the question is which House positions will stick and which will fall away.
House lawmakers exceeded the $546 billion Budget Control Act (BCA) defense spending lid passed last August to set their priorities in two defense spending bills last week. That additional cash allowed them to salvage's Block 30 aircraft and Alenia's Spartan and to buy additional . In an attempt to roll back Air Force-requested reductions to the Air National Guard (ANG), the House Appropriations defense subcommittee added $2 billion for ANG equipment. Over the objections of the U.S. Army, both new House bills provide additional funding for Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles made by .
And although many of those changes will likely gain bipartisan support in both chambers, the Senate's hands will be tied.
“The Senate will have to be choosy,” says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They're bound by the [Budget Control Act].”
The Budget Control Act also set in motion a requirement for Congress to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion or face an across-the-board budget reduction of the same amount. But before the November elections, action on the deficit or defense spending bills is unlikely, leaving resolution until a lame-duck session of Congress at the earliest.
The two House bills place a “pause” on the Air Force's ability to retire or transfer aircraft or disestablish units associated with aircraft.
“The Air Force got a real slap on the wrist here today,” says Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, after marking up the bill. “Our committee is not real happy about how the Air Force handled these issues.”
Panel Chairman Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) maintains that Congress is not “at odds” with the Air Force, but says service officials have not convinced lawmakers to support the ANG decision. “What we're trying to do is get some realistic answers why they think these aircraft are not important to our states.”
Dicks says some House members wanted to do more to protect ANG aircraft.
In battling back against the House, the Air Force will have formidable opponents in Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who co-chair the Senate's National Guard Caucus and also serve on the Appropriations Committee. The two senators are working on their own proposal since the one they and the Council of Governors sent to the Air Force was rejected.
“If they don't have something realistic, then the Congress and the appropriators will have decide,” Leahy says.
But although there is broad agreement on the National Guard, the budget for the nation's strategic weapons is rife with political conflict this year.
For example, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is recommending the Pentagon spend $1.3 billion on thesystem, including the addition of $103 million to begin planning and developing a new site on the East Coast. The president had requested $903 million for the program. Democrats on the HASC tried to have the provision stricken from the bill, but were outvoted by the committee's Republican majority.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who leads the panel dealing with strategic weapons on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he hasn't studied the provision. But he notes that only so much money is available this year. “I'd like to have them everywhere,” he says of missile defense sites. “But at some point, you have to apply your resources where the risk is.”
Even with the disagreement, there is plenty of room for compromise. To some extent, House bills may be artificially inflated to be able to escape Senate action at a lower, but still acceptable level, according to a congressional aide.
So as the four congressional defense committees sort through the details of which programs are winners or losers, budget analysts and lawmakers point out that as long as the penalty for failing to meet deficit-reduction goals is averted, this is a pretty average budget year.
“The most we're talking about [ranges from] a flat budget to a $5 billion cut,” says Russell Rumbaugh, co-director of defense budget studies at the Stimson Center. “No one is actually increasing the defense budget.”
And the lack of real differences on overall spending is why Dicks remains confident that the two chambers can resolve their differences once the election has passed.
“We're talking about—just—a few billion here and a few billion there,” Dicks says. He adds, “In the context of the defense bill, these are not big differences between the House and the Senate. It'll work out.”