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McCain, Thornberry Decry WH NDAA Veto Threat; But What If It Happens?

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Sen. John McCain and Rep Mac Thornberry, chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees

WASHINGTON: The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees made a rare joint appearance today and urged President Obama not to veto their policy bill for 2016. But Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry held out little hope Obama would back off, and if they have a plan for what to do if he does veto the National Defense Authorization Act, they’re keeping it awfully close to their chests.

You’ve made a forceful case against a veto, one reporter asked after the two Republicans’ remarks this morning at the Brookings Institution, but will Obama listen?

“We hope so, but he rarely does,” replied McCain with his usual raspy chuckle, standing in the morning sun just outside Brookings.

So, I asked, is there a Plan B?

“We’ll go through the process of whether there’s an override or not,” McCain replied. “That’s the normal constitutional process.”

That’s also almost certainly a non-starter: While the bill passed by a veto-proof majority in the Senate, it fell short of one in the House, and it would be even harder to rally Democratic votes in direct opposition to a Democratic president.

“What bothers us,” McCain continued, “is it’s clear the president is holding this legislation — regarding the defense of the country and the men and women who serve it — hostage to a process of budgetary procedure which the defense bill has nothing to do with.” (“Nothing to do with” is a debatable point; see below). “That’s what upsets us.”

“Exactly,” chimed in Thornberry. The reserved Texan let the fiery McCain take the lead — except when someone asked about specifics of the complex bill, at which point the former jet pilot routinely passed the ball to Thornberry. After the gaggle broke up, young people swarmed McCain to take smartphone photos with him, while Thornberry, with characteristic quiet, slipped off almost unnoticed.

If the president vetoes the NDAA, I asked them earlier, is there some way to break the bill up, passing uncontroversial provisions such as acquisition reform while deferring the contentious question of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds, which the president says the bill misuses?

“The president’s basic complaint is he wants to spend more money on domestic programs: EPA, IRS, whatever. We can’t do that in the defense authorization bill,” Thornberry said. “We cannot fix his basic problem in any defense authorization bill.”

Thornberry is right on the limits of his committee’s authority, but note that this is even less of a Plan B than McCain’s override-the-veto. Thornberry’s essentially saying that somebody else might be able to make a compromise that addresses the president’s concerns — say, some kind of grand bargain, mini-bargain, or Ryan-Murray II — but there’s nothing the armed services committees can or will do.

Brookings host Michael O’Hanlon had gotten in the act earlier, with equal futility. In essence, he noted, the president wants both domestic programs and defense funded at much high levels than the Budget Control Act allows, while Republicans are willing to increase defense but not domestic spending. So, the noted defense pundit asked the two chairmen, “if there is a veto, wouldn’t a natural compromise essentially be for the domestic accounts to get maybe half as much a plus-up as defense?”

First, “we authorized to the level that the president requested….the exact level,” McCain replied. “Second of all, it’s an authorizing bill, it’s not a money bill. The money is in the appropriations committee. [So] veto the appropriations bills then, Mr. President, because you don’t like where the money is coming from.” The senator said nothing about O’Hanlon’s suggested compromise, let alone any change to the NDAA.

For readers who don’t live this stuff, remember that Congress has two kinds of committees: authorizers who say how the executive branch may spend a certain amount on a certain activity, and appropriators who actually approve the check so the government has the money to spend. But McCain is raising rather a red herring here, since (a) Obama has already threatened to veto any spending bill that doesn’t address sequestration and (b) it’s not the appropriators who came up with the OCO gimmick in the first place.

Specifically, the president’s budget assumed the Budget Control Act caps on spending (aka sequester) would go away. When they didn’t, Republican leaders got him the $612 billion defense budget he requested by shifting all sorts of spending into special war funding accounts (Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO), which are exempt from the BCA.

Democrats countered that the Republicans had done nothing for domestic spending, which doesn’t have any such mechanic to bypass the caps. OCO already had a bad reputation for existing outside the regular budget controls and often funding items only distantly or dubiously related to Ongoing Contingency Operations; this year’s fiscal expedient only worsened that reputation.

“They didn’t have to go this OCO route,” said one Democratic staffer. “If it is ‘just an NDAA’ [i.e. an authorization] and ‘doesn’t matter’ in terms of addressing fiscal issues then why have the extra OCO in the bill at all? Both things — ‘it is important to have the extra OCO in the bill’ and ‘the OCO doesn’t matter because it is just an authorizing bill’ — can’t be true at the same time.”

McCain argued the use of OCO is a precedent the president himself has set. “He has accepted other bills with OCO in it,” McCain argued. (That’s true, but the argument is that OCO items in past years were more directly related to the wars). “It’s not as if this is a brand new problem.”

“We don’t like OCO [ourselves],” McCain went on. But any port in a storm, and OCO is where the committees could steer much-needed defense funding in the face of sequestration.

If the Budget Control Act caps are changed, Thornberry added, a provision of the bill — Section 1501 — would automatically move money out of OCO into the base budget, up to the new cap. That’s how intensely the two chairmen want to avoid the overuse of OCO, if they can.

That said, Thornberry went on, “here to me is the bigger point: If you are a counterterrorism soldier in Afghanistan today, or if you are training the Iraqi army today, or if you are at a Navy, Air Force, Marine, or Army base in the United States supporting those efforts, do you really care if your operations and maintenance funds are classified as OCO or whether they’re classified as base?”

If you’re a military servicemember, you almost certainly don’t. If you’re a Democrat determined that defense spending won’t be preserved at the cost of domestic programs, you probably do. The question is whether it’s worth throwing a wrench into the mechanisms of national defense by vetoing a bill that the system counts on being enacted, as it has been for 53 years straight.

We have no real precedent for what a veto’s consequences would be — and, it looks like, no Plan B. In the absence of either an authorization or an appropriations bill, the legislative default would appear to be a year-long Continuing Resolution, essentially ordering the government to keep spending on the same things at the same levels in 2016 as it did in 2015. Want to start a new program or cancel an old one? Too bad. So a full-year CR offers too little money and zero flexibility, defense officials and their allies say, creating an outcome that’s worse than the Budget Control Act alone.

“You cannot buy things if there’s not some sort of agreement authorizing the purchases and appropriating the dollars to do so,”  said Thornberry. But some sorts of agreement are little better than no agreement at all:  “A large number of House members say just operating for the rest of the fiscal year on a Continuing Resolution is unacceptable, because we’re doing somethings we don’t need to keep doing, and we need to do more of some other things that we’re not doing now,” said Thornberry, but a CR won’t let you stop or start anything except by special exception.

Summed up McCain, “a Continuing Resolution for the rest of this year is incredibly damaging to our ability to defend this nation.”

What do you think?