How to make everyone happy on the defense budget

Is President Obama about to veto a bill that gives him exactly what he wants on defense spending? The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress passed on October 7, budgets $612 billion for national defense—precisely what Obama requested for national defense back in the winter.

The problem is that the plan allocates funds in a way the president finds objectionable. Rather than find a way to supersede the austere budget ceilings of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (a law that remains in effect today, and that led to sequestration in 2013), Congress has used a special fund—the Overseas Contingency Operations account—to circumvent the ceilings as they apply to the Pentagon. The more severe budget limitations remain in effect for domestic programs like science research, education, environmental protection, and infrastructure spending, which Obama finds unacceptable. Thus the veto threat.

Senator John McCain and Congressman Mac Thornberry—both chairmen of Congress’s two armed services committees—discussed the defense budget debate in an event at Brookings today, which I moderated. The conversation made me think about possibilities for compromise. Politics, after all, shouldn’t jeopardize U.S. national security needs.


The baby and the bathwater

It would be a shame to lose much of the good work and good initiatives contained in the National Defense Authorization Act, which has received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. Among its most attractive features are:

  • A new type of pension arrangement for the nearly 85 percent of all military personnel who do not serve in the armed forces for 20 years, and thus never qualify for existing military pensions. It would be a matching-fund arrangement like that already available today to civilian government employees;
  • Reforms to military acquisition policies that would, among other provisions, restore somewhat greater responsibility and accountability for key weapons decisions to the individual military services (rather than a central acquisition authority in the office of the secretary of defense), and also try to encourage more streamlined acquisition contracts resembling a private-sector model in areas like information technology, where current Pentagon procedures make things slow and costly; and
  • Formal authorities for the president to invoke, should he wish, for addressing crises in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine, among other places. That could help him better arm and equip military forces that support American interests.

There are the usual points of disagreement. For example, this year, Congress would like to preserve the A-10 “Warthog” ground-attack aircraft that is being used in the Middle East, but which the administration wants to retire on efficiency grounds. Congress also denied Obama permission for another base-closure round at this juncture.

Meet you in the middle?

On the big-picture budget fight, I have a suggestion. In broad terms, Congress wants to increase defense spending above Budget Control Act ceilings, but hold nondefense programs to the lower limits of that 2011 legislation. President Obama wants to increase the caps for both areas, as the Ryan-Murray compromise of 2013 had done previously (the latter compromise has now expired, which is why a new mechanism is needed).

[S]ince it is a budget dispute involving quantifiable dollars and cents, a mathematical compromise is possible.

Why not compromise—literally—right down the middle? Since the GOP and the president have roughly equal powers and equal claims to a mandate on this sort of budget issue—and since it is a budget dispute involving quantifiable dollars and cents—a mathematical compromise is possible. Congress and President Obama could stick to the $612 billion figure for national defense they both favor, meaning that the Budget Control Act ceilings would be raised by $38 billion for this 2016 budget (and a similar amount for next year). For their part, domestic accounts would receive a $19 billion increase, to be distributed across various agencies and programs. 

Neither side would be completely happy with this outcome. But each would have literally gotten half of what it wanted. And the federal government would run on a proper budget instead of a continuing resolution with the threat of a December shutdown (when the current continuing resolution will expire). 

There would be nothing pretty, and nothing historic or Churchillian about this fix. But both sides would also live to debate, and fight, another day and could seek to gain a mandate for their own preferred fiscal policies in next year’s election. That would not be such a bad result.

I don’t want to speak for the chairmen, but Thornberry in particular seemed willing to contemplate this kind of a solution in today’s discussion. I hope the Congress and president will both do so more broadly, if in fact a veto on the original defense bill is forthcoming later this month.