Nine things you need to know about the Defense budget

Once again we stare into the opaque crystal ball that is Washington and try to divine the fate of this year’s Defense appropriation bill.

The good news, sort of Out of the 12 appropriation bills facing Congress, Defense is the one that will most likely pass in time for due date. That is the view of Saxby Chambliss, a Southern senator who sounds and looks just like an actor playing a Southern senator from a 1930’s movie. Speaking at a recent Bloomberg web conference, he sounded cautiously optimistic, noting that the Senate and House have already passed versions of Defense bill, ahead of where we were at last year.

On the other hand… The House and Senate bills are different. The House authorized $583 billion, while the Senate funded $602 billion (these amounts vary in news reports, and to a certain extent are subject to interpretation; the Defense budget in a tricky multi-factorial affair).

Significantly, the House wants to diminish the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) fund, which is a gimmick designed to circumvent sequestration. In fact they shifted funds over to the base budget in order to mitigate the Army and Marine’s planned drawdown (and increase military pay by 2.1%, not the proposed 1.8%). The President is not amused and has threatened a veto over this and other issues.

The other issues The Senate, led by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, has proposed that the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (ALT) be eliminated. Responsibilities are to be divided between new Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, or USD(R&E), and the renamed Undersecretary of Management and Support, or USD(M&S).  Somehow, this bureaucratic reshuffle is supposed to make it easier for the military to adopt new technology.

Dear reader, does this make sense to you? I have been writing and reading about the acquisition for novel technology by the Department of Defense for several years now, and I can’t understand how this will help at all. If you have any ideas about this particular change, pro or con, please email me at I need someone to explain this to me.

The administration doesn’t like these proposed changes, accuses Congress of “micromanaging,” and promises to veto these budgets. Other issues that the administration has with Congress’s Defense appropriation concern the proposed closing of Guantanamo, drafting of women, the role of readiness, and miscellaneous non-defense issues.

Don’t fear the veto The threat of the veto and the fight between the executive and legislative branches don’t overly concern Saxby Chambliss. This is par for the course, and even with a veto, there is more than enough time to pass the Defense bill.

Why are non-Defense issues significant in the Defense budget? One of the most interesting parts of the Bloomberg webinar was Saxby Chambliss’ description of the Congressional dynamics behind the Defense budget.

Congress has a lot of relatively new representatives who have no experience of the old days, when ideological and partisan opponents routinely worked together in a relatively non-contentious manner to pass bills. Besides Intelligence (which has its own problems), Defense is the only appropriation that is funded yearly as opposed to multi-yearly. It is one of the few times that congressmen from opposite sides of the aisle actually talk and work with each other. This is the new “normal.” As a result, a lot of non-Defense items (which get blocked in the polarized deadlocked Congress) get linked to the Defense budget.

I know what you did last session Another factor in the yearly Defense drama is the elimination of earmarks, and the severe limiting of riders. In the past, these “greased” the gears of the appropriation process. Now everything has to be fought out in the open, which is subjected to heightened scrutiny of the internet. It is common that when a proposal is first made by a representative in Congress, an immediate hostile reaction in social media follows in real time.

If you think things are bad now ….  An observation made at the Bloomberg webinar was that the current administration is avoiding critical decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan and is letting the clock run out. The next president will have some hard choices to face.

No Defense bill until November In spite of the Saxby Chambliss’ guarded optimism, the consensus of the Bloomberg webinar participants was that the Defense bill will probably not pass until the “lame duck” session after the election. Once the poll results are known for sure, the losing party will be more motivated to negotiate a compromise.

Watch for “continuing resolutions” One common “work around” when Congress gets paralyzed is the “continuing resolution.” This temporarily funds specific agencies and programs. If Congress goes this route, examine the length of the resolution carefully. It is a short or long term resolution? Will it kick the Defense budget mess over to the new Congress? Will it include the beleaguered OCO?

Of course, unexpected events, such as a new war, could significantly alter the dynamics of the appropriations process. Since AMREL supplies mission-critical rugged solutions to warfighters and other key defense personnel, we will keep a close eye on the fate of Defense funding. We will apprise you of future developments.