December 9 Pentagon Budget Refresher: Omnibus Spending Bill…What’s the Hold Up?


Defense Appropriations and the Omnibus Spending Bill:

Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown on September 30 when it passed a short-term continuing resolution spending bill. Congress is up against the clock once again: if an extension or compromise is not made by this weekend (technically December 11), large parts of the government will shut down. But efforts to reach a compromise on the omnibus appropriations bill are at a stalemate in part due to party infighting and disagreements between congressional leadership and the White House.

Controversial amendments (policy riders) are a major holdup to the bill. According to Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “We have about 40 or 42 poison pill riders, but some are really big — Hobby Lobby, campaign finance reform — things that should have never even been on the appropriations. So we’re kind of stuck at the riders stage.”

How to deal with resettlement of refugees from Iraq and Syria seeking asylum in the United States, certain portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and a provision pertaining to the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case are just a few issues that have left negotiators at an impasse.

Congress is expected to pass a very short-term funding measure by Friday December 11 to avoid a government shutdown and introduce the text of the spending bill on Monday December 14 with a vote later that week.

REMINDER: Defense Authorization Bill

On May 15, the House approved the FY 2016 NDAA by 296 to 151. Before the final vote, the House considered 135 amendments, but the Republican leadership refused to permit votes on many key amendments. On June 18, the Senate approved the authorization bill 71-25. Of the 600 amendments filed, only 58 were voted upon. There were many speeches and quorum calls and not much action.

Next came three months of on-and-off negotiations on a House-Senate conference agreement. Certain provisions on torture, the Guantanamo Bay prison, Tricare co-pays, the huge increase in the Overseas Contingency Operations account (OCO), and of course, protection of the Sage Grouse (click here to watch the bird’s terrifying mating dance), held up the negotiations.

The conference report was agreed to on September 29. It includes $38 billion over the president’s request for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, an expansion of various missile defense systems, restrictions on funding to dismantle retired nuclear weapons, and hundreds of other policy provisions. See our side-by-side comparison of House, Senate and Conference versions of the defense authorization bill here.

Many Democrats on the two Armed Services committees refused to sign the Conference Report because while defense would be getting a hefty increase, domestic programs would not.

On October 1, the House agreed to the Conference Report by a vote of 270-156. Ten Republicans and 146 Democrats voted against the measure. On October 7, the Senate agreed to the Conference Report by a vote of 70-27. Republican Senators Cruz and Paul joined 25 Democrats in opposing the report

The president wanted to get rid of the spending caps for defense and non-defense, and threatened to veto the NDAA over the continued use of OCO as a budget gimmick, among other issues, such as Guantanamo.

On October 22, the president vetoed the bill. This was the fifth time in history the defense bill has been vetoed – most recently by President George W. Bush in 2008 over an Iraq policy issue.

The budget agreement, reached on October 26, sets a limit on Pentagon spending that is roughly $5 billion less than what is authorized in the NDAA.

The savings found include a $230 million reduction from the initial authorization of $786.2 million for the Long Range Strike Bomber, and a $20.5 million reduction for the new nuclear cruise missile, a 56% decrease compared to the $36.6 million initially authorized. It also includes a $125 million reduction for the Syria Train & Equip program as compared to the $600 million from the president’s request, and the $531.5 million authorized in the initial version of the NDAA.

On November 5, the House voted 370 to 58 to pass the revised NDAA, and decided not to act on its planned veto-override on the initial version of the bill. On November 10, the Senate voted to pass the bill 91-3. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the legislation.

The bill was inserted into S.1356, a Border Patrol Agency Pay Reform bill. Policy provisions in the bill, such as the language preventing the president from closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, were not revised. President Obama signed the bill into law on November 25, 2015.

REMINDER: Budget Deal (H.R. 1314)

On October 26, congressional leaders announced a two-year budget deal to increase discretionary spending caps for defense and non-defense spending for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017. The bill also suspends the debt limit until March 15, 2017.

The deal raises the defense spending caps by $25 billion over the caps under the budget control act level for Fiscal Year 2016, and $15 billion for Fiscal Year 2017. It also provides $59 billion for the Pentagon portion of the Overseas Contingency Operations account. OCO for non-defense, that is, the 150 International Affairs account, gets $15 billion under the deal, for a total of $74 billion for OCO.

The initial version of the bill implied that the OCO levels were to be used as a floor, not a cap; however, House rules amendment struck the words “no less than” in reference to OCO.

The $59 billion for OCO under the Budget Deal is $5 billion less than the $64 billion for OCO appropriated in FY 2015. But the $15 billion for State Department OCO is $6 billion more than the $9 billion appropriated in FY 2015.

To recap:

Budget Deal (in billions)

FY 2016 Base Budget: 548

FY 2016 050 (Defense) OCO: 59

FY 2016 150 (International Affairs) OCO: 15

The House passed the bill by a vote of 266-167 on October 28. Just after 3am on October 30, the Senate passed the deal, by vote of 64-35. President Obama signed the deal into law on November 2.