"The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”
That was a myopic claim when made by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen back in September 2011. But for the House Republicans to recycle it now—as Vladimir Putin’s troops gnaw their way across eastern Ukraine, as ISIS ruthlessly builds its “caliphate,” as Iran wriggles its way out of sanctions and toward regional hegemony, as China pushes its fleets into the Pacific—to promote their defense budget proposals is to demonstrate an accountant’s eye for national security and, indeed, for politics in general.
The Senate budget plan is no better. If Senate budgeteers have their way, America’s commitment to defense will in the years ahead increasingly look more like that of a European state than of the American superpower of years past.
Budget resolutions are both the most meaningless and meaningful forms of legislation. They appropriate no money; they make no policy. But for the parties that write these resolutions, they are important statements of the leadership’s political priorities. Taking the budget proposals advanced by the two committees at face value, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the establishment Republican party is not yet prepared to govern America wisely.
Now, no one can genuinely govern the country from Congress; ask Newt Gingrich. But the new Republican majorities—especially in the House, where they have a nearly 30-vote cushion—could do a lot to both ameliorate the consequences of Barack Obama’s remaining two years in office and create options and opportunities for Obama’s successor. Perhaps even more important, this Congress can begin to shape the landscape for the 2016 election.
These opportunities loom the largest in national security and defense policy. That the world is becoming more violent and more hostile to America’s traditional interests is undeniable outside the bunker of this White House. But while pointing out Obama’s decline-and-fall approach is a necessary first step, it’s not a sufficient solution. Yes, things are going horribly wrong, but what is to be done about it?
Constitutionally entrusted with the power of the purse and the responsibility to raise and maintain military forces, Congress holds the key to jumpstart a return to American leadership and greatness. Congress cannot make Barack Obama into the commander in chief he should be, but it can begin to give the next commander in chief the tools needed to repair the damage Obama has done.
Despite the repeated warnings of senior military leaders about the risks we are running, the congressional leadership has failed to grasp the opportunity—indeed, it has shirked a duty. The nature of its failure is embarrassing. The budget resolution demands that the House defense committees mark their budgets to the sequestration levels of spending outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, that is, $499 billion for fiscal year 2016. That’s $35 billion less than President Obama proposed, and $52 billion less than the “sequester-relief” recommendation advanced by both House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain. And it’s fully $112 billion below the level identified by the bipartisan National Defense Panel as the minimum needed to support even the diminished defense strategy defined by Obama.
It gets worse. In a Rube Goldberg attempt to avoid appearing to be weaker than the Obama administration, the House budget proposes to add $40 billion in “Overseas Contingency Operations” funding above the Obama request, for the transparently political purpose of making its overall defense expenditure appear to be $1 billion above the Obama level. And indeed, most press reports—including from those who should know better, like the Wall Street Journal—have been parroting the House leadership’s claim. The political virtue of this so-called OCO funding is that it doesn’t count in the government’s official reckoning of the annual deficit and overall debt; the military vice is that the Defense Department cannot intelligently program this money—it mostly goes to offset the day-to-day costs of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ronald Reagan did not turn to OCO-type tricks to restore American military strength.
And, by the way, there is no guarantee that the increase in OCO monies will find favor with a majority in the House or the Senate in any case. To put it directly, given the perilous state of the American military in readiness, in aging equipment, and in the size of the force itself, neither the Senate nor the House budget proposal is a serious plan. They are, however, dangerous policy.