Republicans and Democrats are supposedly close to a deal that would lift universally derided spending caps, but the negotiations have been hamstrung by the fact that the two sides can’t even agree on what constitutes “parity” between defense and non-defense funding.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won’t be bound by past “arbitrary” agreements that raised the caps equally for defense and non-defense discretionary spending, as he and other Republicans say a massive new military funding boost is needed to play catch-up after years of neglect.
Democrats, though, are again insisting on a dollar-for-dollar increase, saying certain domestic programs have taken under-the-radar hits from the caps and that defense hawks have consistently managed to sneak in extra money through a special war fund that’s exempt from the limits.
As a potential government shutdown looms at the end of the week, domestic spending advocates are contending with emboldened defense hawks, who are losing patience with stopgap spending plans and don’t agree with the frequent Democratic calls for “parity.”
“Well, clearly I disagree,” said Rep. Scott Taylor, a Virginia Republican who served in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper. “I think it’s irresponsible of Democrats to sort of hold the military, and those who are fighting terror, hostage for their own political desire.”
The GOP-led House staked out its position by passing an appropriations bill last year that included nearly $700 billion for defense and busted through the projected 2018 cap of $549 billion. The domestic spending cap in 2018 is set at $516 billion.
Rep. Warren Davidson, Ohio Republican, said he hopes GOP leaders push for those levels of defense funding, saying even that figure was a compromise and lower than what President Trump and more aggressive hawks had advocated.
“In terms of where the deal is to be made, I supported the higher defense funds because of the readiness issues we’ve had,” said Mr. Davidson, a former Army Ranger.
Both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Davidson acknowledged there is fat to be trimmed at the Pentagon, but said the higher funding levels are needed immediately because of the damage the spending caps have already had on soldiers in the battlefield.
“What always happens as we’re working to solve the waste issues in defense is the bureaucracies keep getting fatter but the trigger-pullers out on the line get underequipped,” Mr. Davidson said.
Mr. McConnell, too, has said a new spending agreement has to provide adequate resources for the military.
“We need to set aside the arbitrary notion that new defense spending be matched equally by new non-defense spending,” Mr. McConnell said this month. “There is no reason why funding for our national security and our service members should be limited by an arbitrary political formula that bears no relationship to actual need.”
To bolster the case, Mr. McConnell pointed to data showing that since 2013, spending caps have led to about $193 billion in cuts to discretionary defense spending, compared to about $108 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary spending.
“That number has real consequences for the men and women who serve our country in harm’s way,” he said.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said negotiators are nearing a deal to lift the caps. But an accord appears unlikely to come this week, when lawmakers have their hands full trying to pass another short-term funding bill to keep the government running past Friday.
The 2011 Budget Control Act laid out the strict discretionary spending caps for both defense and non-defense, as well as so-called “sequesters” intended to get the federal debt under control. Most mandatory spending, on items like entitlement programs, is exempt.
The caps actually ushered in two straight years of total spending cuts for the first time since the 1950s, but Congress has since busted them repeatedly.
It takes 60 votes in the Senate to change the law, giving Democrats — who are also seeking a permanent legislative fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — considerable leverage.
In 2013, lawmakers agreed to raise the discretionary spending limits by about $31 billion over the next two years, divided equally between defense and non-defense. In 2015, they came to a similar agreement, boosting each side by $40 billion for 2016 and 2017.
But now, Congress has been operating several months into fiscal year 2018 on a patchwork of short-term spending bills — a process despised by the Pentagon and defense hawks, who say the stopgap nature prevents adequate long-term planning and can compound the readiness issues stemming from the already-reduced funding.
In response to Mr. McConnell, though, Democrats said the public needs to see the whole picture, pointing to lawmakers’ frequently parking additional military money into a special Overseas Contingency Operations fund that isn’t subject to the spending caps.
That fund has often been used as a “slush fund,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and a member of the Senate Budget Committee.
“We have to look at all the moving parts in this conversation,” he said.
Most mandatory non-defense spending for programs like Social Security and Medicaid is exempt from the cuts.
But according to the Congressional Research Service, the 2013 and 2015 agreements also extended mandatory sequester cuts that affected non-defense items like farm and student loan programs, and that those reductions had a larger effect on domestic programs than defense items.
“Some of the cuts on the domestic side are on the mandatory side, so we’re pushing for that full investment [in] things like education, medical research and other investments to help the economy grow,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “So we think that’s an important investment to make for the strength of the country as well, so we’re going to keep pushing.”
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, also said it’s not necessarily as simple as a one-to-one hike, because “non-defense” spending in areas like the State Department and certain homeland security functions could effectively be geared toward “defense.”
“That, I think, all goes into this issue of what’s parity, what’s fair, what do we need, what can we afford,” said Mr. Reed, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I think parity is more or less we’re meeting the basic needs not just on the defense side, which are critical, but also in a broader national security context - state, homeland, and then in the context of are we able to respond to emergencies in the U.S.?” he said.