WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday advanced an $81.6 billion 2017 military construction and Veterans Affairs bill, though the lower chamber’s budget blueprint remains stalled.
The bill, which funds Pentagon infrastructure and veterans programs, includes $1.2 billion less than President Barack Obama’s budget request, but $1.8 billion more than last year’s level.
The spending bill comes amid House Republican infighting over whether to stick to last year’s budget deal between Obama and former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, which set spending at $1.07 trillion. Fiscal hawks in the House Freedom Caucus are calling for a $30 billion cut to match 2011 budget caps eased by the 2015 deal, citing the nation’s economic security.
Despite House Speaker Paul Ryan’s calls for regular order, the budget blueprint remained in limbo as the House went into recess through April 11. The Senate, in recess since March 18, returns April 4.
At the hearing to mark up the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee’s "milcon-VA" bill on Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., touted the timing of the legislation, which comes several weeks before it was passed in 2015.
“I want to commend you for working through your hearings expeditiously and putting this bill together in a very timely manner, at our request,” Rogers said.
The Appropriations Committee’s ranking democrat, Nita Lowey, of New York, on the other hand lamented the “most extreme voices in the Republican party have taken over” and condemned the movement to renege on the budget deal.
“It seems we are not on track for regular order or responsible governing as we are leaving for almost three weeks of recess. How irresponsible is that?” she said.
Debates over the defense portion of the budget blueprint continue, particularly its use of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), which is exempt from budget caps, to fund defense.
The plan, passed by the House Budget Committee on March 16, sets $574 billion in base budget requirements, with some funded through the base budget and some through OCO. Defense hawks argue that leaves OCO funding $18 billion short of the activities the president has asked for, and that it would be up to the next administration to address it through a supplemental funding measure.
At Tuesday’s House Armed Services hearing, Tactical AirLand subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said the president’s budget request fell short of the Bipartisan Budget Act, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter pushed back.
“We're going to have to agree to disagree about that — about whether we budgeted to the BBA, because we believe we did,” Carter said.
At the HASC, a key Democrat on the committee, Rep. Susan Davis, of California, questioned Carter on the wisdom of funding base requirements through OCO. Carter did not express an objection to the arrangement.
“Generally speaking, the base and the OCO budgets have different managerial purposes,” Carter said. “The base budget is for things that are enduring, meeting enduring requirements, and OCO is for the variable costs associated with urgent, ongoing operations. That's still largely true, but it's not completely true.”
On Wednesday, one Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., expressed concern that OCO, which originated as a wartime fund, was being “gamed” to fund baseline needs, and he disputed assertions that DoD is underfunded.
“Look at the other 10 largest industrialized countries. They’re spending a de minimis among of their GDPs on defense, and they’re in essence resting on us to take care of it,” Sanford said. “I don’t know that’s going to be sustainable.”
Sanford, a Budget Committee member, voted for the plan in committee but is expected to vote against it on the House floor. He said the success of the budget resolution is “not contingent upon defense” and called for “a degree of reformation in every part of government.”
“The concern for the budget hawks, and I’m one of those, is that the numbers in the long run don’t add up, and we will have a much bigger squeeze on defense spending unless we get our financial house in order,” Sanford said. “If we can’t cut tens of billions now, how will we do it down the road?”
When the Budget Committee met March 16 to consider the budget plan, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., offered a failed amendment to prevent any OCO increase, calling it a wasteful “slush fund,” improperly exploited to skirt spending caps.
“We know it has expanded beyond what any contingency fund should be,” she said, “and it’s really a black box with no oversight.”