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HASC Markup Debates $18B Fiscal Gimmick; F-35 Stays Intact

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Rep. Mac Thornberry HASC chair (1)CAPITOL HILL: Members of Congress clashed today over everything from the F-35 fighter to the Lesser Prairie Chicken. But the most fundamental issue at the House Armed Services Committee’s annual marathon markup of its defense policy bill was simply how to pay for it.

Chairman Mac Thornberry defended repurposing $18 billion of Overseas Contingency Operations funds for non-emergency “base budget” needs, which creates an OCO shortfall, and he cited a 2008 precedent when a Democratic Congress voted war funds for only part of the year. HASC’s top Democrat, Adam Smith, shot back that we didn’t have the Budget Control Act in 2008, and said Thornberry’s maneuver raises the risk that vital funding for ongoing operations runs afoul of the arbitrary cuts called sequestration.

But both Thornberry and Smith are wrong as far as I can tell, based on discussions with committee staff. (More on why, below).

And it looks more likely that that the Obama White House will oppose the OCO move, anyway. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee this morning that he “cannot support such maneuvers as Secretary of Defense.” Why? He called it, “another road to nowhere, with uncertain chances of ever becoming law, and a high probability of leading to more gridlock and another continuing resolution…exactly the kind of terrible distraction we’ve seen for years, that undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, dispirits troops and their families, baffles friends, and emboldens foes.

Rep. Adam Smith

Rep. Adam Smith

The flaw with Adam Smith’s argument is easier to spot. By only funding Overseas Contingency Operations for part of the year, “this bill is playing a very high stakes game; will there be the votes in April to overturn the Budget Control Act?” Smith warned. “If not, we are going to have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who will suddenly run out of money.”

Well, no, because the Budget Control Act doesn’t apply to Overseas Contingency Operations, just the base budget. In fact, OCO’s exemption from BCA caps is the reason Thornberry repurposed OCO to cover base-budget needs in the first place.

Thornberry’s error is subtler. Thornberry argued there is precedent for funding combat operations for only part of the year if it’s an election year, when a new administration will take office part-way through. (The federal fiscal year begins October 1st; a new administration gets sworn in January 20th). Back in 2008, Thornberry said, when Congress was controlled by Democrats, it based a “bridge fund [for] operations in Afghanistan and Iraq,” going only partway into 2009. The (correct) assumption that the incoming Obama administration, once it got its bearings, would ask for supplemental funding to reflect its own priorities.

But the presidential election is just a pretext here, not the real reason for what Thornberry’s doing. Yes, what Congress did in 2008 is a precedent for funding overseas contingency operations only partway through the year. No, 2008 was not a precedent for using OCO funds for base-budget needs in order to bypass Budget Control Act limits, because the BCA didn’t exist then.

All that said, both Thornberry and Smith have the fundamental issues right. Budget Control Act caps and cuts have done damage to the military; more money is needed to repair it, and Overseas Contingency Operations funding — meant for the immediate demands of war — is increasingly used as a legislative bypass, which is (depending on where you sit) genius, gimmickry, or both.

“Look into the eyes of a pilot who’s getting far less than the minimum number of training hours…in order to stay proficient,” Thornberry lamented. “[Ask] a commander who’s been tasked with deploying his unit overseas but does not have functioning equipment.” Ultimately, he warned, “the billpayer for a lack of readiness is dead servicemembers.”

“We do not have the money [because] we are unwilling as a Congress to provide the money that is necessary to meet those complex threats,” Adam Smith said. Congress needs to repeal the Budget Control Act and “raise taxes or live with the debt” in order to provide the necessary funding, Smith said, or “readjust what our defense priorities are” until we can afford them under the BCA. (The Democratic Smith didn’t mention cutting entitlements — which is many Republicans’ preferred solution — although he has done so in the past).

The funding question overshadows everything else the committee does, with a question mark looming over billions of HASC proposals. Nevertheless, the committee did debate vigorously on a host of policy issues (and, at this writing, is still debating, with the markup session expected to last well after midnight).

F-35B

F-35B

One of the biggest-ticket issues was a proposal to split up the massive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Democratic legislator and combat veteran Tammy Duckworth put forward a proposal to make the $3-plus billion Block 4 software upgrade its own program, separate from the rest of the F-35 effort. (Sen. John McCain pressed for the same thing at yesterday’s F-35 hearing. He was opposed by both Frank Kendall, head of Pentagon acquisition, and Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 program. They do not want a separate program within a program, with all the extra oversight that would require.)

Citing the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Duckworth argued splitting off the software upgrade would trigger additional much-needed oversight. After all, she argued, an upgrade for the F-22 fighter only got on an even keel after it was split off as its own program: “This time we’re in a position to get it right from the beginning,” she said of F-35. “Given the troubled history and numerous delays of the F-35 program,” she said, “[we must] insist on best business practices.”

“This would not help; it would hurt. It is not simple. It is complex,” countered Air-Land subcommittee chairman Michael Turner. While Duckworth’s diagnosis of many of F-35’s problem is correct, he said, her cure is worse than the disease: the F-35 program executive officer, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, has estimated the split would incur $13 million in additional costs and a year of delay.

Duckworth’s amendment was soundly defeated, 25 to 41.

Colin contributed to the story.

What do you think?