As the 114th Congress kicks off, the new Republican majority has an important opportunity to prove it is serious about national security. Its first major test will come early, as reports indicate the White House will release its fiscal year 2016 budget, unusually, on time this Feb. 2. Congress is expecting a base budget request for the Pentagon of $535 billion — roughly $21 billion less than pre-sequestration levels of spending, but still about $35 billion over the legal budget cap of $500 billion.
President Obama's submission of another defense budget that ignores the law should clear up any confusion by policymakers that the military is not getting enough funding to meet its many needs right now. The president is admitting, in effect, that his own defense budgets are too low by blowing through the budget caps.
At the same time, Obama's submission of a higher-than-allowed defense budget will then shift the burden to a Republican Congress to find the appropriate offsets to pay this bigger bill. This will likely require $35 billion in offsetting cuts elsewhere in the discretionary budget — tradeoffs the White House and Senate Democrats are likely to oppose. Yet giving the president at least the defense number he is asking for makes smart sense for Republicans. After all, Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanWhy a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform Trump is right about one thing Winners, losers of GOP convention MORE's (R-Wis.) 2015 budget allocated about $541 billion for the Pentagon in 2016 — $6 billion more than the president is requesting.
The $51 billion for the defense budget going to ongoing operations is just about $13 billion less than what the Pentagon requested and Congress provided in 2015. This continues a recent trend observed by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments's Todd Harrison, who has chronicled the increasing cost per service member funded by wartime spending, of the so-called war budget going to more non-urgent or emergency needs. In other words, as the number of military personnel in Afghanistan has declined in recent years, wartime budgets (which are exempt from the budget caps) have declined less precipitously. This pattern indicates that the Pentagon has shifted significant budget costs from its base budget into its other account in order to soften the impact of automatic budget cuts.
Given the relatively slight reduction for overseas operations spending between fiscal years 2015 and 2016 — despite the continued drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — it appears that the Pentagon's 2015 emergency supplemental was especially inflated by base costs that were shifted into the wartime budget. In 2016, a higher base budget — if Congress provides it — would allow the Pentagon to more appropriately fund non-war costs in the appropriate place, the base budget, while reserving emergency spending that is debt-financed for true contingencies.
More broadly, House and Senate Republicans are on notice that Obama is drawing a clear line in the sand. His expected defense budget request should make clear to any doubters that sequestration-level spending is wholly inadequate to address growing national security challenges, especially in light of growing threats from Russia, China and Islamist radicalism. If Republicans fail to alter the defense caps while they control both chambers to at least meet the president's request, they will have abdicated their responsibilities as stewards of national security — and handed the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee a substantial victory.
If, on the other hand, Republicans meet or exceed the president's defense spending request — which truly is the minimum needed for our fighting men and women — while finding sensible offsets elsewhere, they can force the president to either veto his own recommended level of defense spending or accept a division of discretionary spending that more appropriately balances government priorities. Let's hope Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Boehner on Cruz: 'Lucifer is back' Ryan: ‘No better choice’ than Pence for Trump VP MORE (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellWhy a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform Trump is right about one thing Winners, losers of GOP convention MORE (R-Ky.) and both Budget Committee chairmen, Sen. Mike EnziMike EnziSanford-Enzi 'Penny Plan' gets nation to a balanced budget Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention Judd Gregg: The silver lining MORE (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), agree. When it comes to this decision, they are the four men who matter most.
Eaglen is a resident fellow, and Morrison is a research assistant, at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.