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Analysis: Senators Writing Placeholder Defense Money Bill

Figure will be lower than House, in prelude to likely deal

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran predicts Congress and the administration will eventually make a deal on raising the budget caps on defense accounts. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran predicts Congress and the administration will eventually make a deal on raising the budget caps on defense accounts. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate appropriators’ forthcoming Pentagon spending bill for fiscal 2018, which will contain tens of billions of dollars less than the House’s measure, should be taken seriously, but not literally.

The Senate spending panel’s defense funding proposal is likely to grow, assuming — as is likely — that an agreement to slightly raise the budget caps is reached, as it has been for every year since the caps called for by the sequester were enacted in 2011.

In the meantime, however, the Pentagon and its contractors would be wise to take the Senate appropriators’ number seriously in this respect: the other three defense bills, with their huge proposed increases in the defense budget, are mere fiction until the budget caps are revised upward.

One of those unrealistically expensive bills, the House Appropriations Committee’s new Pentagon spending measure, hits that chamber’s floor this week. 

Exceeding the cap

Senate Appropriations announced Thursday the total amount of discretionary spending it will allocate for national defense programs other than war in fiscal 2018 in the Defense, Military Construction-VA and Energy-Water bills: $551 billion.

That amount is the same as the fiscal 2017 enacted level. And it’s a couple of billion dollars more than the budget law’s cap for defense in fiscal 2018, which is $549 billion.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense share of that $551 billion in base programs is $513.1 billion, the committee said.

On top of that would come $82.1 billion for Defense Department war funds, which is the lion’s share of a $103.7 billion government-wide total for war in the Senate committee’s proposal.

The Senate panel’s prescription for the Pentagon’s war account would be about $17 billion more than the administration requested, so it appears appropriators may intend to stash some spending there that properly belongs in the base budget.

Even with that extra pile of money in the war account, the discrepancy between the Senate appropriators’ defense allocation and that planned by the other three defense appropriating or authorizing panels is mammoth.

The House budget resolution, for example, proposes $621.5 billion for so-called base national defense programs (everything other than war-related ones) at the Pentagon and other agencies, as compared to the $551 billion in the Senate Appropriations plan — a nearly $71 billion difference.

The House-passed defense authorization bill is in the same part of the fiscal stratosphere as the House budget resolution at $624 billion, while the Senate Armed Services-approved companion would authorize spending $632 billion for the comparable programs.

Moreover, while the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense portion of the full committee’s defense spending total is $513.1 billion, the House Appropriations Committee’s companion measure, which the House plans to take up this week in a so-called minibus package with three other money bills, sets its comparable figure at $584.2 billion — again, a roughly $71 billion difference.

In other words, the House is acting as if the budget caps do not exist, while the Senate is mostly heeding them.

“Negotiations with Congress and the president may eventually produce a new budget agreement,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi at a committee markup on Thursday. “Until such time, however, it is reasonable that we move forward using fiscal year 2017 funding levels.”

“We all know we cannot finish our work or bring these bills to the floor without a budget deal in place,” said Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on Senate Appropriations, at the same markup.

Splitting the difference

If past is prologue, the House’s number will have to come down — and probably by a lot — while the Senate’s will rise.

Adjusting the budget caps will be no easier this year than it has been in any of the half-dozen years since they were first enacted. The rub has always been that Democrats want a dollar increase in nondefense programs for every dollar increase permitted in defense programs, while GOP budget hawks have pushed in the opposite direction — insisting that nondefense spending should in fact decrease (or at least not increase).

Despite these pressures, the Pentagon has managed to secure from Congress an average of roughly $18 billion in relief from the budget caps each year.

While they will probably get some relief again this year — and therefore, more money than Senate appropriators said Thursday — they still are unlikely to get the roughly $72 billion hike above the cap that House Republicans want.

That will disappoint defense hawks — including the defense hawk’s hawk, Arizona Republican John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services. McCain will be watching much of this from his Arizona home as he undergoes treatment for brain cancer.

The caps, then, still matter as much as ever. If Congress appropriates more money than the caps allow, the Pentagon will not get it anyway. That’s because, under the terms of the budget law, the money would be sequestered — or cut evenly from nearly all programs — to get down to the cap level.

It is not yet clear when the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense will mark up its fiscal 2018 defense bill. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the ranking member of that panel and the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that he does not know whether it will happen before lawmakers leave town for the August recess.

Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this story.