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Thornberry Cuts War Budget to Force Supplemental

April 21, 2016 (Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This article, originally posted at 12:34 p.m., was updated to include comments from House Speaker Paul Ryan and analyst Todd Harrison.  

WASHINGTON — The House’s 2017 defense policy bill will hew to the Pentagon top line of last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, but takes a major gamble by using $18 billion from the wartime budget for base budget needs and forcing a war budget increase on the next presidential administration.

HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is proposing legislation that will fund additional weapons systems and manpower, but only enough money in the overseas contingency operations budget — which funds operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere — to last to next April.

Combined with other national security needs, the top line is $610 billion. With the $5 billion that the Pentagon has already allocated from OCO for base-budget needs, the total for OCO-funded base requirements would be $23 billion.

“We are keeping the budget agreement, and that means that some of OCO is meeting base budget requirements,” Thornberry said at a breakfast with reporters in Washington on Thursday. 

The House Appropriations Committee, which passes spending bills, will also back those numbers, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Thursday morning.

"I support what Mac Thornberry's marking up at the Armed Services [Committee], and the appropriators will follow suit," Ryan said.

Driven by concerns the White House has not adequately funded the military, the committee is proposing legislation authorizing 27,000 active-duty troops and 25,000 reservists, providing $3 billion for 14 more F/A-18E/As Super Hornets and 11 more F-35 joint strike fighters and adding roughly $2 billion to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. The items were unwanted by the administration but requested in the services' "unfunded priorities lists."

Thornberry said his defense policy bill addresses a military in the midst of a “readiness crisis,” characterized by increased aviation mishaps, overworked aircraft maintainers, and a stressed and inadequately sized Army and Marine Corps. He likened its state to the mid-1970s military, saying it is “beginning to fracture.”

Improving readiness and maintenance is intertwined with modernization, he said.

“I don’t care about how much money and personnel you put into maintenance, you’re going to have a harder and harder time keeping that 1980s F-18/A flying, so the real answer is to replace it with an F-35, service by service, component by component,” he said. “I used to think readiness was a question of [operations and maintenance] funding, but it’s deeper than that.”

Because the bill matches the top-line request but includes less in OCO, Thornberry said the next president will need to request a supplemental war-funding bill. 

“There is not enough OCO left to pay for the activities the president has asked for for the whole fiscal year, and that’s why the next president has an opportunity to look at those activities,” Thornberry said. “The new president can ask for a supplemental to finish out the fiscal year at whatever level he or she thinks is appropriate.” 

In essence, the plan banks on the assumption that Democrats and the president will accept an amount that meets the 2015 deal’s defense top line regardless of how OCO is used. 

“We looked seriously at upping the top line, but the judgement was that this gives us the same total level as the president gives us appropriation bills signed and authorization bills signed,” Thornberry said.

Yet the defense policy bill’s creative approach may face an uphill road, as Democratic support remains an open question, and Thornberry’s counterpart, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain said he is considering a different direction for his committee’s version. The Senate bill is set to be marked up in a closed session May 11.

“I appreciate his efforts to do what’s right and I look forward to discussing it with him,” McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re going to go in a different direction, but I respect his efforts very much.” 

Still this may be the best chance to raise defense spending in 2017, said budget analyst Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This is an interesting new strategy the HASC is using, and I think this is probably the best approach available to boost defense spending in FY17," Harrison said. "They are effectively carving out $18 billion of the OCO budget and using it to fund things the administration had to cut from the FY17 base budget to conform with last year’s budget deal. This certainly makes the services’ unfunded priority lists more important because they provide a shopping list for Congress to add things that the service chiefs have already said they need—and a strong justification the HASC can use to persuade others in Congress."

Passing a partial-year OCO funding bill during a transition year is not without precedent, Harrison said. In fiscal 2009 the Bush administration only proposed a partial-year OCO request, leaving it to the Obama administration to request the remainder of OCO funding for fiscal year 2009.

"If Thornberry is successful, something similar would occur in FY17 with the new administration quickly asking Congress for additional OCO funding for the remainder of FY17," Harrison said.

The approach is also rooted in an interpretation of the budget deal espoused by House defense hawks who argue the president’s budget should have used more OCO to boost the base defense budget over mandatory spending caps.

The draft bill due to be marked up by the full HASC in a week will include reforms to the Pentagon’s organizational structure, acquisition and personnel systems, along with billions of dollars of weapons systems and troops above the levels in the White House’s defense budget.

Amid pushback from the Pentagon and defense industry, the bill will ease proposed acquisition reforms that mandated modular open architecture standards and will instead take a “less prescriptive” approach, Thornberry said.

“What we want is to encourage this modular open architecture system in every way we can, but not say it is the answer in every case,” Thornberry said.

Lara Seligman, Chris Cavas and Leo Shane III contributed to this report.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com 

Twitter: @reporterjoe

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