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Memos, Vetos, Spending And Those Elections

Posted by Colin Clark on


WASHINGTON: Congress has returned after a week of uncommonly beautiful weather for Washington in late August. But, with all the other miseries that Congress has wrought upon the American people in the last few years, lawmakers appear to have brought the hot and muggy weather back with them.

What else might they have brought back? Could we see the 2017 defense spending bill pass the Senate this evening? Maybe, but my prediction is that it’s not likely, because there’s still three weeks to pass a bill and it will probably get wrapped into an Omnibus spending bill that takes us through to after the election. Since Congress is only back for four weeks and government spending runs out on Sept. 31, they’ve got to do something…. OK, they don’t really have to do anything, but the Republicans really don’t want to be blamed for shutting down the government in an election year, let alone leaving US troops hanging.

A complicating factor, given the thin skins of the partisans on both sides, will be a 13 May Pentagon memo first reported by Politico. The memo laid bare in official form what anyone who watches the building closely already knew, namely that the top leadership of the military doesn’t like the $18 billion Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) spending “gimmick” inserted in the annual defense policy bill and in the House version of the annual defense appropriations bill.

Rep. Mac Thornberry

Rep. Mac Thornberry

The House Armed Services Committee’s bill would limit Overseas Contingency Operations funding to seven months for fiscal 2017 — counting on the next president to request the last five months’ funding in a separate bill — and shift $18 billion to what the GOP describes as modernization and readiness. The House Appropriations Committee, told to by House Speaker Paul Ryan, is reluctantly supporting the HASC approach.

The memo, by Pentagon Comptroller Mike McChord and Stephen Hedger, assistant defense secretary for legislative affairs, details how the department should try to stop passage of the $18 billion. While it does detail fractures in the Republican positions on the money, it also makes clear that Democrats aren’t exactly rock solid in their opposition to the GOP effort to “improve readiness.”

The principal divide is between the House and Senate, as the memo details. The memo points to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, “still smarting” from the vote last year which sustained the Obama’s administration veto of the defense policy bill. Most of the memo details standard measures the administration can take: intimate meetings with senior lawmakers by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, op-eds in newspapers and the like.

Almost all of this has been obvious for months. Breaking D readers will remember when Thornberry fired back at Carter in mid-May after we reported the defense chief described the $18 billion move tor reporters as “objectionable on the face of it.” He did not say if he would recommend President Obama veto the bill as is (which the president did last year), but it certainly sounded like it.

To get some idea of how much Thornberry appreciated the relatively straight-forward analysis of what is happening and who needs to be convinced of what, read the chairman’s statement:

“It is unfortunate and rather sad that some in the Obama Administration spend so much time and effort playing political games, as evidenced by this memo. In a Department charged with the security of our nation, the American people and our troops deserve better.

“Members of Congress in both sides of the aisle are working to meet our responsibilities to our troops and to the nation. I hope that in the next Administration we will have a partner who will do the same.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement lambasting the Pentagon for the memo, making the amusing argument that, “For this administration, it’s always politics first, even at the Pentagon. This memo details with relish a plan to use a presidential veto of a defense bill as a ‘weapon.’ It’s shameless, and it threatens more than five decades of bipartisan cooperation to enact a national defense bill for our troops.” Of course, the hyperbole and hypocrisy of Ryan’s claims don’t need to be dissected since all these folks engage in politics all the time.

Rep. Mike Turner, chair of the HASC tactical air and land forces subcommittee and a reliable partisan, added his own bit, saying, “This memo is proof that the Obama Administration continues to play political games when it comes to our national defense. While the Administration expends its efforts on making our national security a partisan issue, the safety and resources of our men and women in uniform hang in the balance.”

What I find most interesting in this memo is not that it was written. This is how business gets done in Washington. You make recommendations to your boss and then you work to enact them. No one calls anyone names or implies anyone lacks patriotism in the memo. But Ryan, Thornberry and co. react predictably, simply because the other side said something.

Let’s hope this election leads to some improvement in everyone’s attitudes.

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