Congress Tackles Annual Pentagon Bills

Congress’s schedule for the week of June 26, the last week before the 4th of July recess, will be a three-ring circus on national security issues.

Council for a Livable World is following all the circus rings, and trying to influence the direction of the bills in the face of challenging demographics on all relevant committees.

Bills that will be considered this week that have a major impact on both military and foreign policy issues include:

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), will markup or write its version of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill both at subcommittee and full committee levels beginning on June 26. That schedule could be upended by Senate consideration and votes on the health care reform legislation.
  • The House Armed Services Committee chaired by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) will work on its version of the bill in what is likely to be a marathon session on June 28, probably going late into the night. That committee’s subcommittees produced sections of that bill last week.
  • The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will be writing the fiscal year 2018 Defense Appropriations bill on June 26, starting in the evening.

As a reminder, these defense bills become vehicles for amendments and debate on a wide variety of issues, including foreign policy, arms control, and environmental controversies. It is worth noting that the Pentagon budget is one of the few budgets where monies are authorized and appropriated in separate bills. With most government agencies, such as the Department of State, the budgets are only appropriated.

The Armed Services committees and Defense Appropriations subcommittees are promoting a huge increase in the Pentagon budget. While the final numbers are not yet in, it appears that Pentagon hawks will be authorizing about $640 billion for the base defense budget plus a $65 billion Overseas Contingency Operations request for a whopping $705 billion total. That sum is $37 billion more than President Trump’s request, which was already $54 billion above the defense spending cap in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The $640 billion figure would be $91 billion above the budget cap.

Freedom Caucus Republicans objecting to exceeding or eliminating the budget caps and Democrats insisting on equal footing for non-defense programs are the major barriers to Senators McCain’s and Thornberry’s thrust for more defense spending. We may not know the outcome for months.

The Council has produced an analysis of the House Armed Services Subcommittee’s provisions that negatively affect arms control. That subcommittee approved a number of hardline positions, including limiting funds to extend New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) beyond 2021, limiting nuclear weapons dismantlement, establishing a Space Corps to fight and win wars in space, and requiring the development of a ground-launched cruise missile system that would violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The Council is working to reverse the House Committee actions in the Senate and in an eventual House-Senate conference. The Council’s analysis assesses each of the problematic provisions and suggests a legislative fix.

The Council drafted and circulated a letter to Chairman McCain urging him to try again this year to force the Air Force to release the total cost of the B-21 long-range strategic bomber. The Chairman lost a similar provision last year by a 7-19 vote in the committee.

The Council has been diligently communicating its positions to Congress. In addition to circulating its analysis of the arms control provisions, it signed a letter from organizations on the right and left objecting to a major buy of the controversial F-35 aircraft “that would waste millions in taxpayers dollars.”

We signed a similar bipartisan letter opposing continued funding for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) because the program “is vastly over budget, behind schedule, lacks even a single potential customer, and could even be putting dangerous nuclear material at risk.”  

We are also backing an amendment to be introduced in the House by a bipartisan coalition led by Reps. Michael Burgess (R-TX) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) called the “Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017.” The provision would reduce the budget of any military service or defense agency by 0.5% every year they fail to complete an audit. This legislation already has 26 original co-sponsors, seven of whom are Republican.

It’s going to be a wild ride this week. The Council will be following and analyzing all the action.

~ John Isaacs, Senior Fellow at Council for a Livable World