House Defense spending report shows bad blood with Pentagon

Angry report blasts 'unacceptable and unsustainable' disregard for authority of Congress

Aerial view of the Pentagon building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aerial view of the Pentagon building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 9, 2020 at 5:59pm

A House panel report accompanying the latest Pentagon spending bill reveals enormous ill will between defense appropriators and the department they fund.

The “contravention of the constitutional authority of the United States Congress has now become habitual,” the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee report, obtained by CQ Roll Call, said. “The Committee finds this to be both unacceptable and unsustainable.”

Even considering that the panel is majority Democrat and the administration is led by a Republican, the appropriators' blistering language is highly unusual. And it underscores the contempt that has been simmering since the Trump administration tapped appropriated military construction dollars to pay for the president's desired, and highly controversial, border wall.

The harsh verbiage is one of several elements of the report that were only hinted at in the bill and a committee summary, both of which were made public earlier this week.

The measure also withholds scores of millions of dollars for acquisition programs where costs are soaring, including initiatives to build new Air Force hypersonic missiles and rockets for launching satellites.

What’s more, the appropriators said it is “premature” for the Navy to end production of F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets after this fiscal year — a turnabout that, if enacted, would have big implications for industry and potentially for aircraft carrier crews.

Passionate pushback

The full Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up the $695 billion draft measure next week.

The tone of the report, more than any particular decision, is what stands out. It is arguably the angriest congressional report in recent memory.

The appropriators “condemn” the Trump administration’s diversion of $10 billion in military money in the last two years to build barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border, and that is clearly a major source of the friction.

But it is not the only one.

The panel hit the Pentagon for “rhetorically supporting military families” while cutting spending on childcare and teachers in military schools.

The department, the report added, regularly seeks additional budget flexibility to spend money for programs “with or without congressional approval.”

“The granting of additional budget flexibility to the Department is based on the presumption that a state of trust and comity exists between the legislative and executive branches regarding the proper use of appropriated funds,” the panel said. “This presumption presently is false.”

The panel also urged that overseas contingency operations funding stop after this fiscal year.

Despite a continuing drawdown of U.S. forces in war zones, the Pentagon plans to seek an average of $15 billion a year in OCO funding from fiscal 2022 through 2025, on top of the scores of billions provided since 9/11.

Don’t bother, the panel effectively said, indicating the Pentagon “should not request” these funds in the future and should instead pay for it through their base budgets or seek a supplemental.

The overseas account has too often been used not for its intended purpose of funding military campaigns abroad but instead as a “relief valve” for additional defense spending above caps in law, the report said, calling the account “an abysmal failure.”

Fighter competition

As for the Super Hornet fighter jets, the Navy had wanted to stop procuring them after fiscal 2021 and instead spend the money on extending the lives of the existing fleet. But the panel is concerned about forgoing the three squadrons of Super Hornets to be taken off the books as a result and worries that the older planes may not be ready in time to meet requirements. The appropriators asked for further analysis from the Navy and Defense secretaries.

The Super Hornets are built by Boeing Co. near St. Louis and have long been considered a competitor for the F-35 fighter jets, the backbone of the future squadrons in all the military services, which are produced by Lockheed Martin Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas.

Continued production of the Super Hornets could represent competition for the F-35 program.

Hypersonics oversight

On the Air Force’s so-called ARRW hypersonic missile program — for "air launched rapid response weapon" — the panel would provide the requested $382 million but lamented a 60 percent increase in the program acquisition cost to $1.4 billion and said it would not fund any more than that.

The subcommittee decried the “repeated failure to adequately budget” for the program.

The program is being acquired using special statutory authorities that permit less paperwork and more speed, but the panel questioned this “mantra” and said the results on the ARRW program “call into question” whether there is adequate oversight.

The measure also proposes an 11 percent cut to the $1.04 billion request for procuring rockets under the national security space launch program. Here, too, appropriators cited rising costs.

Open Skies closing

The panel also criticized the administration's May announcement it is withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty without notifying Congress as the law requires.

The treaty permits the United States, Russia and 32 other nations to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories.

This is "further confirmation of the Department of Defense’s increasing disregard for the law and the Congress," the panel said, adding it is “concerned with the Administration’s apparent contempt for arms control measures."

Accordingly, the panel rescinded $159 million in previously appropriated funds for the Air Force to buy two OC-135 aircraft to conduct the reconnaissance flights. The panel said the Air Force may not use the money for another purpose.

Loading the player...