2016 Defense Policy Bill Vetoed

Thursday, October 22, 2015

President Barack Obama’s Wednesday veto of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act throws yet another wrinkle in the federal budget process. This was not entirely unexpected, as the White House’s Office of Management and Budget first warned lawmakers in May of the possibility of a veto of the annual defense bill because of a budgetary gimmick in which the overseas contingency operations fund was being used to increase the base defense budget.

In a May statement of administration policy, White House officials said this procedure fails to provide a stable base defense budget, does not prevent sequestration from happening, and attempts to circumvent budget spending caps for defense while not helping non-defense programs.

Retired Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, president and CEO of the Association of the U.S. Army, is urging the White House and Congress to act. “It is disheartening that eight months of congressional deliberation on the 2016 National Defense Authorization Bill led to veto of this vitally important policy bill, something that should have been avoidable,” he said.

Vetoes of the defense authorization bill are rare but not unprecedented. President George W. Bush vetoed the annual bill on Dec. 28, 2007, over a non-defense provision in the bill that froze Iraqi funds held in U.S. banks. One month later, a revised version of the bill was signed into law.

No attempt was made in Congress to override Bush’s veto, in part because of legal confusion about whether he had vetoed the bill or simply refused to sign it. However, Congress is expected to attempt to override Obama’s veto of the 2016 bill. It takes a two-thirds majority to override a veto. The House of Representatives passed the final bill by a 270-156 vote on Oct. 1, short of the two-thirds needed for an override. The Senate passed the bill on Oct. 7 on a 70-27 vote. The House of Representatives has scheduled an override vote on Nov. 5.

What happens if an override fails is unclear because unlike in 2007, the disagreement cannot be easily resolved by just changing the defense bill. Fully responding to the White House objection could require Congress to reach a larger agreement on spending priorities that would include modifying spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act for defense and domestic spending, making sure there is no threat of sequestration in 2016.

There is a deadline, of sorts, for when the policy bill is needed. The Army will be forced to stop paying new enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses and some other incentive pays on Dec. 31, unless authority is extended. Even temporary halts to these pays would disturb recruiting and retention programs.

Congress also has to do something about the debt ceiling, which will be reached in early November. Without an increase, it is possible the federal government might have to delay paying military and government workers starting as early as the mid-November payday.

Also, temporary funding for all federal programs expires on Dec. 11, requiring either another extension or a permanent appropriations bill to avoid a partial government shutdown.

“Our soldiers and their families, our defense industry partners and the world are now watching to see what happens next,” Sullivan said. “This is a time when Congress and the White House should get serious about national security legislation.”

In a joint statement, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee said they viewed the veto as “reckless, cynical and downright dangerous.”

“Never before has an American president used the bill that provides pay and support to our troops and their families as political leverage for his domestic agenda,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, bemoaned the state of national security budgeting. “It is hard to quantify the cost of the budgetary turmoil over the past five years: the cuts, the continuing resolutions, sequestration, gimmicks, furloughs, shutdowns, unpredictability and more,” he said.

Gates said if it were his decision, he would have taken the $38 billion offered by Congress in the contingency budget instead of in the base budget. He called it “a terrible way to budget,” but said “it does provide the resources."

“In the current paralyzed state, maybe there is no alternative right now to getting the money this way,” he said. “It is a hell of a way to run a railroad.”