UPDATED 4:40 pm with Bob Work comments WASHINGTON: The budget deal saved the day for defense. Now let’s never do that again.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 bought two precious years of stability, House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said today at the Defense One summit, but it hurt like hell to get it, and the hurting ain’t over yet.
To start with, Thornberry and his Senate counterpart, John McCain, have to figure out how to revive their vetoed 2016 defense bill — while slicing out $5 billion as the budget deal required. On the upside, the budget deal undid the funding gimmick that was President Obama’s main objection to the National Defense Authorization Act, Thornberry noted : “The main reason for vetoing the bill has now gone away.”
A veto override vote is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, but Thornberry made clear House leaders hadn’t decided to proceed. The “cleanest, simplest” way to get the NDAA’s provisions into law is indeed to override the veto — though Thornberry isn’t sure he has the votes — but then you’d have to pass a separate bill to trim spending by $5 billion. Alternatively, you could withdraw the NDAA and introduce an almost-identical version with the same policy provisions but $5 billion less in funding.
“There’s pros and cons to either path,” Thornberry said. “We’re going to be ready for both options this week.” Either way, he said, the NDAA will make it into law. It just has to slim down a little to fit the budget deal.
The budget deal is crucial, make no mistake. “The most important thing is that it provides stability for defense funding for a two year period and that’s something that is desperately needed,” Thornberry said. “It is also important to say however that the level that was agreed to is not enough. It does not fix defense.”
The deal was absolutely worth taking, Thornberry emphasized: “The stability that you get from a two-year deal is more important than the extra $5 billion.”
“The big thing is we no longer to worry about fighting for ’16 and worrying about ’17,” agreed Work, speaking later at the summit. “It is something that we have been waiting for for quite some time… We crave stability.”
“What the budget deal does for us immediately is, on ’16 it’s a reasonable target for us to hit” — that is, finding $5 billion to cut from the president’s requested budget, Work said. “It’s going to be harder in ’17 without question. We calculate it will be. about a $14 billion delta in that given year [less] than what we had planned. That’s going to be a harder target to hit and we’re working through that right now” in the presidential budget request that will be unveiled in February.
But you still have to cut the $5 billion for 2016 first, and fast. There is some fat to trim — chiefly due to lower fuel prices and programs that haven’t spent their funding on schedule — but Thornberry said, “there are real programs, real capability that has to be cut to reach the $5 billion dollars, fewer things we can buy, things we’ve got to slow down, so it is into the meat.”
Then there’s the immeasurable damage to bipartisanship done by the years of budget brawls, especially the historic veto of the NDAA. That bill passed the HASC by 60 votes to two, Thornberry said, and of the “nay” votes, one was a Republican and one a Democrat. “It’s only when it became politicized in this larger political debate that it started to be more partisan,” he lamented. “There was huge damage done by the president’s veto.”
But wasn’t the president’s veto the forcing function that made the budget deal happen just days later, asked Defense One moderator Molly O’Toole? No, said Thornberry, because there were bigger drivers. The debt limit also loomed in early November, with the good faith and credit of the United States at stake. And an appropriations bill still has to pass by December 11th to prevent a government shutdown.
“We’re not done yet,” said the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, speaking at the Defense One conference this afternoon. While the budget deal is long-awaited and to be “applauded,” he said, “this is the seventh year in a row we’ve had a Continuing Resolution.” A CR is, a stopgap spending bill that tells government departments to keep operating on autopilot, at last year’s funding levels and no authority to start or stop programs, if Congress cannot pass regular appropriations before the federal fiscal year starts on October 1st. It’s the current CR that expires Dec. 11th.
“93 percent of every first quarter we’ve been under a continuing resolution for the past six years,” Work lamented. “That means the Department of Defense now is operating on a nine-month fiscal year.” That’s a “totally unsatisfactory” way to run what’s effectively “the largest and most complex global corporation on the planet, Work said. “We cannot continue this.”
In short: Budgets may be tight, but one thing Washington has no shortage of nowadays is dysfunction.