WASHINGTON — An internal strategy memo in which Pentagon leaders aim to "play hardball" to derail the Republican-led House's defense funding "gimmick" drew the fire from House Majority Leader Paul Ryan on Tuesday, who called the memo "shameless."
"For this administration, it's always politics first, even at the Pentagon," Ryan said in a statement. "This memo details with relish a plan to use a presidential veto of a defense bill as a 'weapon.' It's shameless, and it threatens more than five decades of bipartisan cooperation to enact a national defense bill for our troops. The men and women who defend our country deserve better."
The five-page memo revealed the Pentagon's plan to enlist sympathetic lawmakers in the House and Senate against Ryan's defense spending plan — and to provide cover for Democrats to vote against it. The strategy blueprint was dated May 13, around the time the House voted to approve the plan, and it was first reported by Politico on Tuesday.
Prepared for Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Deputy Secretary Bob Work by DoD Comproller Mike McCord and Assistant Defense Secretary for Legislative Affairs Stephen Hedger, it strategizes how to sway lawmakers as they decide whether to include an extra $18 billion in wartime Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding for the final defense policy and appropriations bills they will send to the president.
The "gimmick" is the House-approved plan diversion of $18 billion in wartime funds toward base budget programs to skirt budget caps, cutting off wartime funding on April 30, 2017 — a gambit to force the next president to make a supplemental request to Congress.
"In short, we should attack the OCO gimmick and be prepared to play hardball opposing it," the memo read. "The veto threat is our primary weapon. However, a veto threat only works if it is supported by the Democratic Leadership and their caucuses. Our job is encourage and support those efforts."
President Barack Obama vetoed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last year over its use of OCO for base budget needs.
The memo discusses an informational blitz, with fact sheets, opinion pieces and meetings with lawmakers and think tankers. It recommends engaging directly with senior lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — as well as key Republicans: Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
The strategy walks up to the line as it wields influence, and discusses the effort to keep former defense secretary, retired brass, think tankers and media commentators "fully informed about the Department's concerns."
"The Department cannot advocate that such individuals take any specific actions, however," according to the memo.
It recommends Carter take the rare step of appearing, if invited, to any Democratic caucus meetings, though it does risk "the appearance of partisanship," or if Democrats support the bills, "weakness."
"As a general matter, avoiding this risk is advisable," the memo read, "but in an 'all in' approach to opposing the gimmick the risk would be worth taking."
In line with the lobbying effort prescribed by the memo, Carter first said in May that he would recommend the president veto the 2017 NDAA if it "includes a raid on war funding." In public and in letters to Congress, Carter has attacked the plan as imperiling to the stability of the Defense Department.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon's spokesman, told Defense News in an email: "We are not going to discuss internal department deliberations. The department's strong opposition to the House proposal should not be a surprise. Secretary Carter and other senior leaders have repeatedly made clear their deep concerns with a proposal that raids $18 billion in war funds at a time of war, in order to buy force structure that the department has not requested and may be unable to support in the future. In addition, the proposal also undermines the bipartisan budget agreement that has allowed the department to responsibly plan for the future in our budget proposal. We will continue to work with members of Congress to try and resolve our concerns with this and other provisions in the House and Senate defense bills."
The memo gave assessments of how sympathetic HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D) Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., would be to their efforts.
"Frelinghuysen may be less enthused about following the OCO gimmick format from the HASC bill, but has been directed to do so by [Ryan]. Capitalizing on his discomfort could help prevent the gimmick from surviving," the memo read.
"Thornberry is still smarting from the veto sustaining vote" the 2016 NDAA received last year and "has vowed to do everything in his power to ensure he gets a string vote this year," the memo read.
To lead Democrats, support from HASC Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., as well as HAC-D Ranking Member Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., and SAC-D Ranking Member Dick Durbin, D-Ill., "will be especially crucial," the memo read.
Securing Democratic opposition to the appropriations measure is "vital" because Senate Democrats can block forward movement on a defense bill with 41 votes.
Thornberry issued a statement accusing the administration of "political games," and he hoped the next presidential administration would do more to meet its responsibilities to troops, who "deserve better."
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.