07 May 2015 Legislative News Update
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every Thursday when Congress is in session.
FIRST SPENDING BILL PASSES IN THE HOUSE After two days of wrangling, the House finally passed the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs Appropriations bill (H.R. 2029).
The measure, usually the least politically contentious of the appropriations bills, was held up by three failed amendments offered by Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would have struck $532 in military construction-related funding that used the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. That account is not subject to spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view the tapping of the OCO funds as a budget gimmick.
In the end, however, the bill passed on a vote of 255-163.
The legislation contains funding to house, train, and equip military personnel, provide housing and services to military families, and help maintain base infrastructure. The bill also funds veterans’ benefits and programs.
In total, the bill provides $76.6 billion in discretionary funding – $4.6 billion above the fiscal year 2015 level. This represents a 5.6 percent increase over the fiscal year 2015 level for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – including increases for health care, benefit claims processing, the Board of Veterans Appeals, medical and prosthetic research, and information technology. Of this funding, $58.7 billion was provided in the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill. Military construction is increased by $904 million over the fiscal year 2015 enacted level, which allows for full funding of family housing, construction of hospitals and health facilities, and support for critical overseas investments.
What’s next: The House will wait for the Senate to pass its version before the bill heads to conference to iron out any differences.
REGULAR ORDER: RULES, PRECEDENTS AND CUSTOMS OF CONGRESS THAT CONSTITUTE AN ORDERLY AND DELIBERATIVE POLICYMAKING PROCESS. For the first time in six years, Congress has adopted a budget. Does that signal a return to regular order? Probably not.
The resolution gives the authority to begin passing fiscal 2016 appropriations bills that comply with the limits. It contains legislative language but is not a bill, it will not be signed by the president and it was not supported by any Democrats.
The resolution reflects the current post-sequester caps on discretionary spending - $523 billion for defense and $493.5 billion for non-defense programs in fiscal 2016. Both House and Senate measures added $38 billion to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to get around spending limits in the budget document.
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain said that he was pleased that the “resolution provides relief from sequestration’s devastating cuts to our national defense” but cautioned that “this relief is only temporary. Providing additional resources for defense through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account was not my preferred course, and it does not tackle the long-term readiness disaster facing our military if sequestration returns. Much work lies ahead of us to end sequestration and its threat to our national security once and for all,” McCain said.
He continued, “Providing for our national defense is the most important constitutional responsibility of this body. However, carrying out this responsibility is not possible under the spending caps imposed by 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and the meat-axe across-the-board spending cuts of sequestration. I believe there is no national-security basis for sequestration. In fact, there is nothing conservative or Republican about trying to bring about fiscal discipline in Washington by slashing defense spending by $1 trillion over the next ten years – especially in a time of growing global crises and increased threats to our national security.”
DEFENSE SECRETARY: BUDGET CUTS “PAINFUL BUT NECESSARY” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told lawmakers this week that the Pentagon cannot be expected to perform its missions within statutory spending caps if Congress continues to bar it from money-saving steps.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee along with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Carter said, "If confronted with sequestration-level budgets and continued obstacles to reform, I do not believe that we can simply keep making incremental cuts.”
Carter called the combination of budget caps and congressional restrictions on cost-saving measures a "double whammy" and voiced his concern that Congress is once again rejecting the Pentagon’s proposed cuts.
"We're starting to see this double whammy once again in markups of legislation this year," Carter said. He was probably referring to the defense policy bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee last week which voted to reject the Pentagon’s proposals to limit military pay and housing allowances, cut government support for commissaries and increase out-of-pocket cost for health care.
Carter called these budget proposals "painful but necessary" choices.
Carter also said that he does not support lawmakers' efforts to circumvent the spending caps by increasing war spending in the Overseas Contingency Operations account by tens of billions of dollars.
"While this approach clearly recognizes that the budget total we've requested is needed, the avenue it takes is just as clearly a road to nowhere," Carter told appropriators.
Our two cents: We might have a little more sympathy for the Pentagon’s personnel budget woes if we didn’t see reports like the one they released in April that claims they cannot account for $1.3 billion in money that was given to commanders in Afghanistan from 2004 through 2014. The money was 60 percent of the funds in the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), an emergency program that pays for critical reconstruction projects in the country. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to another report released in March which found that the Department of Defense had lost track of a total of $45 billion dollars used in long-term reconstruction projects.