WASHINGTON — Ahead of a House Appropriations Committee markup session set for Tuesday, a senior White House official sent a letter to committee leadership decrying the use of war accounts to pay for routine operations as a "gimmick," and calleding for a fix for sequestration budget cuts, lest they place national security "at unnecessary risk."
Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a the letter Monday night to Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the committee chairman, and top House Appropriations Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey, of New York, that likely will provide ammunition for the floor debate over the budget due in the coming weeks. The committee's Defense subpanel approved its markup in May, which mostly fully funds big-ticket Pentagon weapon programs.
In the letter, Donovan said wrote he has "serious concerns about this legislation, which would underfund these important investments in the base budget and instead rely on budget gimmicks that have been criticized by members of both parties. The legislation also includes highly problematic riders and provisions that would preclude needed reforms."
Administration officials hope for a bipartisan deal patterned after the late-20122013 deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Donovan said he aims to work with the Congress to "reverse sequestration for defense and non-defense priorities, and offset the cost with commonsense spending and tax expenditure cuts, as members of Congress from both parties have urged."
An administration official said the goal is to have the issues laid out in the letter addressed before the bill reaches the president's desk. , and t There have been some encouraging signs of this, including a bipartisan amendment to the Senate's budget resolution that calls for a sequestration fix. Typically, the floor debates have been are opportunities for lawmakers to highlight contrasts, the official said, and the intent of the letter is to "shine a spotlight on the implications of the sequestration funding levels."
The subpanel's legislation, crafted by Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., proposes $578.6 billion in defense spending. The committee's overall funding level would be $24.4 billion above the amount enacted for the current fiscal year. The measure includes an $88.4 billion overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, setting up a showdown with the Obama administration and a potential battle on the House floor.
Donovan attacked the Republicans' 2016 budget framework for leaving "inadequate base budget funding levels" and "its reliance on gimmicks to pay for defense," an allusion to the bill's seeding of OCO with base requirements — an approach with opponents in both parties. The subcommittee bill cuts base budget funding in the president's budget by about $36 billion, or 7 percent, while using OCO to buy back cuts the subcommittee bill made to the base budget.
Though the letter never threatens that the president would veto any bill with extra defense spending, Donovan takes took aim at $1.5 billion for National Guard and Reserve equipment absent from the president's budget, but added in OCO. It The letter noteds the administration's past opposition to several provisions that would restrict policy for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and block the Defense Department's ability to implement certain reforms to compensation and force structure.
"I think it's quite ironic that a bill that has the veneer of curbing costs by maintaining sequestration and goes to such lengths to maintain that veneer — by using that gimmick — then turns around and blocks a variety of needed reforms that DoD needs to take in order to fully achieve the defense strategy, even at the funding levels in the president's budget," the administration official said.
Donovan says that said inappropriate funding in the OCO includes $7 billion in compensation for service members whose billets were not created for temporary operations; $17 billion for day-to-day peacetime costs of military operations and maintenance; and $13 billion for long-planned, long-term investments in equipment and technology development. The approach undermines its use as a special wartime funding tool and "clearly violates its purpose," Donovan argueds.
"By paying for base budget costs using OCO funds, the Subcommittee bill fails to provide the stable, multi-year budget on which defense planning is based," the letter stateds. "As the Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have repeatedly stated, funding enduring operations through OCO is harmful both to military planning and to servicemember morale. Secretary Carter has called this approach 'managerially unsound, and also unfairly dispiriting to our force.'"
Even as the bill puts OCO funding to use in service of national security, Donovan argueds the House budget framework will lock in cuts that would hamper partner nation counterterrorism programs, control proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cut the Department of Homeland security by 5 percent and veterans' medical and construction programs by a half-billion dollars.
"Sequestration was never intended to take effect: rather, it was supposed to threaten such drastic cuts to both defense and non-defense funding that policymakers would be motivated to come to the table and reduce the deficit through smart, balanced reforms," Donovan's letter stateds. "The Republicans' 2016 budget framework would bring base discretionary funding for both non-defense and defense to the lowest levels in a decade, adjusted for inflation."
John Bennett contributed to this report.