US President Barack Obama discusses foreign policy with members of Congress July 31. (Mandel Ngan / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama put the Islamic State terrorist group on the “varsity” team of US foes. America’s top general, Martin Dempsey, has spoken of the group’s “apocalyptic” visions.
And Defense Secrectary Chuck Hagel has said the Pentagon might have to retool its $555 billion 2015 budget proposal to account for the threats posed by and actions taken against the Islamic State.
“[Y]ou’re constantly shaping a budget to assure that resources match the mission and the mission and the resources match the threat,” Hagel said on Aug. 21.
Defense insiders are abuzz about the prospect of a congressional mea culpa on defense spending. The collective hope stems from a world picture that suddenly includes several burgeoning threats that were on Obama’s “junior varsity” list at the start of the year.
That includes the Islamic State, the radical group based in Iraq and Syria, and Russia, which analysts say could invade Ukraine at any moment. Then there are the perennial threats: a “metastasizing” al-Qaida, a still-volatile Afghanistan, Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and an ever-militarizing China.
Yet veteran Washington hands doubt even such a lethal group will force a reversal of US defense cuts.
Congressional hawks such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., for months have been saying the world is too unsafe for additional rounds of across-the-board defense cuts.
There is general agreement on Capitol Hill that if the military gets to a point it cannot carry out crucial combat missions, something will have to be done about the remaining years of sequestration.
“I think you’re definitely going to see some lawmakers making that case when they get back from [the August] recess,” said Roger Zakheim, a former senior House Armed Services Committee aide. “The War Powers [Act] notifications continue to mount. The stack has been growing over August.”
One lobbyist with ties to Republican lawmakers said “there’s definitely talk of that.”
“The subject will come up. Lots of members will say, ‘Given all of these threats, what do we do about this?’ ” the lobbyist said. “It all costs money, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
Other defense insiders agreed, saying the threat picture should cause alarm among lawmakers.
Asked if he believes Congress will lessen or void the remaining Pentagon sequester cuts to help the armed services pay for ongoing strikes in Iraq and possible ones in Syria, Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security said: “I would like to think so, because the strategic imperatives certainly are there.”
There would be several legislative options for lawmakers to lessen the 2015 and future rounds of the cuts:
■ Pass a stand-alone sequester measure before November’s midterm elections or in a lame duck session after. But, given Washington’s poisonous political environment, experts said that seems unlikely.
“Even if Republicans get the Senate, they’re not going to have 60 votes,” said former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, referring to the vote tally needed to block a filibuster.
■ The overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget is not subject to sequestration nor existing spending caps. Analysts say Congress and the White House could agree to just pay for the Iraq strikes — and possibly ones in Syria — with that account.
“OCO really is the easiest. And this Congress usually has done the easiest thing,” Korb said. “The OCO has become the preferred way to deal with these situations. The other thing is, the OCO is tougher to vote against. Some would call it a slush fund, and they could use if they had no other option.”
■ Pass something that gives the Pentagon some form of budgetary flexibility, an idea that has had bipartisan support in the past — though too few votes to pass.
“Where the two parties will probably converge is in agreeing the military needs enough funding flexibility to respond quickly to threats against the American homeland,” said Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and a defense consultant. “That might lead to some loosening of fiscal constraints on the Pentagon as long as voters don’t think the additional money will be used to send US troops to trouble spots.”
■ Pass a defense sequester-killing measure after a major crisis event.
“Washington has not been good lately at coming up with solutions free of an evident crisis,” Fontaine said. “For instance, if the Air Force comes in and says, “We can’t carry out these missions because we have no ready air wing because sequester went back into effect, or [the Army warns it lacks] enough operational ground forces, that might make people reverse [sequestration] pretty quickly.”
■ Tie a sequester measure to a Syria strikes authorization measure.
Lawmakers want Obama to seek congressional approval before launching any strikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria. Zakheim said such a vote could give House and Senate leaders an opportunity to use a new theater of war to flow more funds to the Defense Department.
“If Congress does an [authorization for the use of military force] resolution, you could put that in parallel with a sequester bill,” said Zakheim, now practicing law at Covington & Burling. “You could make it two votes,” he said, painting an image of what would be a dramatic scene on the Hill.
■ Do nothing this year. Do another OCO next year.
Gordon Adams, who oversaw national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration, said he has been told the administration is paying for the new Iraq airstrikes with funds provided by the 2014 OCO.
He sees no reason to alter any 2014 military funding bills. But, he said the key question on making sure the Pentagon has ample cash to combat the new threat picture is “whether there’s a supplement that goes [to Congress] in 2015.”
Administration officials and lawmakers have floated the notion that 2014 would be the final year of OCO requests to pay for war-related — and many other — items. But, experts say that could change if the political winds shift as the US confronts the Islamic State and with Russia bearing down on a former Soviet bloc country.
“When the patriotic rhetoric starts being waved around,” Adams said, “budget discipline is gone.”
Despite ample options, most experts agreed that just because Congress should do something doesn’t mean it will. “The politics aren’t there yet to give them more money,” said Adams, now at American University.
“Count me as skeptical,” Fontaine said. “They’ve only got a few legislative days in September and before the election. They could probably move a couple bills, but it would be a heavy lift to have sequestration relief as part of that.”
That’s largely because shrinking the size of coming sequestration cuts would require deficit-reduction measures of the same size. And finding those kinds of compromises goes to the heart of the two major political parties’ ideologies.
“What is needed is a link between sequestration and an inability to carry out these kinds of missions,” Fontaine said. “So far, it’s about other things. No one is saying we can’t combat [the Islamic State] unless you reverse sequestration.” ■
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.