Obama boosts defense spending, but faces uphill battle
By JON HARPER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 3, 2015
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama released his fiscal 2016 budget request Monday, asking for $534.3 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget plus an additional $50.9 billion for “overseas contingency operations.”
For those who don’t want to scour federal budget documents, here are 8 things you need to know about the president’s budget request.
- It far exceeds budget caps: Obama’s budget blows past the caps imposed by lawmakers, by about $35 billion. Unless Congress changes the law known as “sequestration,” the Pentagon will have to make due with about $499 billion — 8 percent less than the president wants.
Analysts are skeptical that the White House and a GOP-controlled Congress can reach an agreement about how to pay for higher defense spending. “There are four paths to increasing defense spending: cut nondefense discretionary spending, reduce entitlement expenditures, add tax revenue, or relax the restrictions on adding to the deficit,” wrote Ryan Crotty, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The first two of these solutions are anathema to Democrats, and the last two are anathema to Republicans.”
- It attempts to limit growth in pay and benefits: Obama is proposing a 1.3 percent pay increase troops and federal workers. That would be more than the 1 percent bump the past two years, but well below the estimated 2.3 percent increase in private-sector wage growth, which, by law, military raises are supposed to match. It would require servicemembers to pay about 4 percent more out-of-pocket for housing over the next two to three years. It would cut commissary subsidies by $100 million, and patrons could see reduced operating days and hours. It would phase in changes to Tricare call, including a steady increase in Tricare-for-Life annual enrollment fees for retirees age 65 and older, as well as increased deductibles and pharmacy co-pays over the next decade.
- The Army would get significantly less than the other service departments. The Army would get $126.5 billion; the Navy and Marines, $161 billion; the Air Force would get $152.9 billion. The active duty Army would shrink by 15,000 soldiers, while the other services would see no change or grow slightly.
- The Pentagon still wants to kill the A-10: To save money, the budget request calls for retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft. The A-10, also known as the “Warthog”, has significant support on Capitol Hill, and DOD’s proposal to get rid of the Warthog went down in flames last year.
- DOD wants another round of BRAC: The budget calls for authorization to initiate another round of Base Realignment and Closure to save money by shedding excess infrastructure. But there is little support among lawmakers, who don’t want to see bases in their districts get shuttered and their constituents put out of work.
- OCO money is down but still sizable: The $50.9 billion request to fund “overseas contingency operations” is down from the $64.3 billion enacted last year, a 21 percent decrease. A major reason for the decline is the significant reduction in troop levels in Afghanistan. But the OCO request funds a number of items that aren’t clearly associated with wartime operations, including: $1.3 billion for training and equipping Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels who are fighting the Islamic State group; $800 million for troop rotations through Europe to reassure NATO allies worried about Russia’s resurgence; and $7.9 billion for investments in “equipment reset and readiness.”
- There’s a major Navy buildup in the works: The fleet would increase from 271 to 282 ships in fiscal 2016. The new USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier will come into service, as well as 13 other battle force ships. The introduction of the Ford will allow the Navy keep the number of carriers available at 10 while the USS George Washington undergoes refueling.
- Modernization money is way up: $107.7 billion would go toward procurement, a $14.1 billion increase over fiscal 2015. The Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation budget would see a $6.3 billion bump. Much of that money will go towards cutting-edge platforms, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the V-22 Osprey troop transport, which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter but fly at airplane speeds.
It’s important to remember that Obama’s request is just that — a request. Congress has the power of the purse. That’s why the defense budget that Congress approves might look very different than the one being proposed by the president and DOD.
It’s clear that a major budget battle lies ahead, especially when it comes to nondefense spending and finding ways to pay for a potential increase in the Pentagon’s budget.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the overall federal budget proposal more of the same from Obama, criticizing plans for “more taxes, more spending” and more “Washington gridlock.”
“Like the president’s previous budgets, this plan never balances — ever,” he said in a written statement. “While the president’s budget is about the past, our budget will be about the future. We will address our government’s spending problem and protect our national security.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the White House proposed tax increases “and other budget gimmicks” knowing full well that they “will never be enacted into law.”
“We need a real budget,” Rogers said, “one that allows responsible investment in critical federal programs — including our national defense — without breaking the bank and pushing our country further into deficits and debt.”