WASHINGTON — Weeks ahead of President Obama's budget submission to Congress, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry is already putting pressure on the White House, suggesting a looming fight in Congress to increase defense spending.
Thornberry, in a Jan. 13 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, said funding in the two-year bipartisan budget agreement needs to be adjusted to reflect increased threats against the US. He rejected Obama's State of the Union message that talk of America's enemies getting stronger and the US growing weaker is "baloney"
"Military strength requires both quantity and quality of capability," Thornberry said. "The Obama administration argues that a ship today is more capable than one 20 years ago. Generally, that is true, but a ship can still only be at one place at a time."
Thornberry argued that the budget deal allows for an increase to defense. He said it established a 2017 base budget amount of $573 billion for defense operations and "no less than $59 billion" for the wartime contingency account known as OCO, "with the exact amount dependent on the world situation."
"That agreement was reached more than two weeks before the Paris attacks, and the pace of our military operations has only increased since then," he said.
Thornberry also voiced "rumors" that the administration, rather than asking for more money to cover the higher operational costs, would cut base funding to pay for OCO needs.
"That cuts people, weapons, research," he said. "Guaranteeing a minimum level of defense spending was the key to getting last year's budget agreement. The terms were clear to everyone; and everyone should stick to it."
Among the possible justifications for an OCO increase is the president's Oct. 15 announcement that the US force in Afghanistan of 9,800 troops would remain through most of 2016, before dropping to about 5,500 at the end of next year or in early 2017 — made public less than two weeks before the budget deal announcement. Also, a month after the budget deal, the Pentagon announced plans for an targeting force of special operators to conduct more raids in Iraq.
"The bipartisan budget deal was agreed to after the president's [Afghanistan] announcement but nonetheless one could try to argue that there hadn't been time to redo the numbers," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings national security expert. "Because OCO is treated more leniently in general, one would have to think there's a decent chance there will be a way to boost those numbers."
The 2016 defense policy bill avoided breaking the cap on base budget spending by shifting roughly $38 billion of the total requested for the defense base budget into the OCO account, which — while exempt from the budget caps — is intended to provide emergency funding for pop-up missions. The president, who objected to lifting the spending cap on defense without providing equal relief for non-defense discretionary spending, vetoed the policy bill in protest.
To resolve the impasse, the budget deal raised the discretionary spending caps for both defense and non-defense programs, ultimately tucking around $8 $9.1 billion for base budget activities into the OCO account.
It remains to be seen whether Congress might attempt to use OCO again as a vehicle for base budget requirements, and what amount might invite a veto from President Obama.
"It’s not like he said you can never play a single game or never bend the rules a little with OCO, he just said, 'When you want to throw in $40 billion, it’s a little much,'" O’Hanlon said of the president. Good pull quote "The door’s open, it’s somewhere between $9 billion and $40 billion. Somewhere in that zone, there is room to maneuver."
On Jan. 13, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., would not rule out an increase for defense using OCO, and told reporters budget discussions are ongoing. During remarks at the Brookings Institution, he said defense spending is too low. "The folks who know say we're at the lower ragged edge of where we ought to be," he said.
Meanwhile, the idea of an OCO increase resonated with hawkish Republicans like Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who last year spearheaded a contentious plan to include base budget requirements in OCO for the 2016 budget.
Echoing Thornberry, Turner said the bipartisan budget agreement establishes OCO, "as a floor, not a ceiling, in recognition that we have additional threats that are on the horizon … and in my conversations with leaders at the Pentagon they are absolutely going to come to the Congress and state, 'We need more resources.'"
While it's far from clear whether it will translate into support for increased defense spending, a number of Republicans in Congress voiced rebukes of Obama's State of the Union message on national security, saying he had made the country less safe.
"Under his watch, Iraq has gone from a decisive victory to the breeding ground for one of the most-aggressive terrorist groups in history, the Islamic State," said Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "He's taken critical tools away from our intelligence officials at a time when we face heightened threat levels. And he struck a deal with Iran that effectively gives one of the world's most dangerous regimes carte blanche to develop a nuclear weapon."
In recent weeks, two top Pentagon officials, Comptroller Mike McCord and Frank Kendall, undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, have warned that an expected $15 billion delta between what the congressional budget deal gave the department and what the Pentagon planned on having will require targeting the equipment, and not personnel, side of the budget.
HASC Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman, said a fight for more defense funding "has to happen," and that he would support it. While Wittman, R-Va., called plussing-up OCO "problematic," he said, increasing the base budget as he would prefer — to fund much-degraded training accounts — would be, "extraordinarily difficult."
On the other hand, HASC member Rep. Duncan Hunter, who described himself as both a defense hawk and a fiscal hawk, said he would not commit to increasing defense spending until after he sees an expected package of defense reforms.
"You now have a million DoD civilians while we're cutting the Army," said Hunter, R-Calif. "There has to be some reforms in place to put the [armed] services and warfighter first and the bureaucrats last — and that's got to go along with the budget increase."