Pentagon 'big winner' in $1T omnibus bill

The Pentagon and the defense industry came out of the $1 trillion omnibus spending bill as a big winner, experts and lawmakers said Tuesday, a day after the bill was released. 

“The big winner is the Defense Department. They should be breaking out champagne in the Pentagon,” said Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert and former Clinton official.

The omnibus spending bill provides about $497 billion for the Defense Department in 2014 — about the same as in 2013. But the Pentagon also received $85.2 billion in overseas contingency operations (OCO) for the war in Afghanistan, roughly $5 billion more than it requested for 2014.

Before last month’s budget deal that relieved $22.4 billion in sequestration cuts, the 2014 defense budget would have been around $475 billion. 

The OCO funding, which Adams said is the “cherry on top of the dessert,” can be used to pay for operations and maintenance in the base budget and help restore military readiness lost in previous years. 

Fiscal watchdog and anti-war groups criticized the $5 billion increase from the Pentagon's request in OCO funding as a “slush fund to pad the department’s budget and avoid spending reductions,” especially with the winding down of the Afghan War. 

“There is no excuse for a $5 billion increase to OCO especially in a time of belt tightening throughout the federal government,” David Williams, president of Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said in a statement Tuesday. 

The defense industry was also a winner in the omnibus spending bill, Adams said. 

All major weapons systems procurement requests were fully-funded, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system in history. 

Also fully funded were the Army’s M1 Abrams tank program, and the Navy’s shipbuilding plans for eight new ships. 

Israel is also a winner in the omnibus spending bill, with money fully provided for the Arrow, David’s Sling, and the Iron Dome rocket defense systems. 

Medically retired service members had reductions to their pensions restored, after the Bipartisan Budget Act reduced the retirement pay 1 percentage point below inflation for all working age veterans. 

However, Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Pentagon was not necessarily a winner under the new budget deal, since sequestration was relieved only for the next two years. 

“[But] they’re quite lucky. It seemed that no one was really listening to Pentagon leaders until the last few months,” said Bensahel, who is also co-director for the CNAS's Responsible Defense Program. 

While lawmakers touted the completed spending bill as a win for nearly everyone, there were a few losers. 

One of the most notable losers included the Pentagon’s research and development projects, which received $7 billion less than last year.

In addition, the defense space program and the procurement for the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye program were delayed. 

Also, funds for the Afghan National Security Forces is about half as much as the White House requested, Adams said.  

Working-age military retirees who are not disabled will still have their pensions reduced by 1 percent below inflation beginning in 2015, but Adams said it is likely Democrats and Republicans are both rushing to find ways to undo the unpopular cuts before they begin. 

“Things get done when there's enough people at home yelling and screaming,” said Senator James Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who said he was in favor of undoing the cuts. 

Veterans groups expressed disappointment the cuts were not restored in the omnibus. 

“Congress broke its promise to veterans by agreeing to cuts to military retirees,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff in a statement. “Veterans nationwide continue to demand that Congress listen to us and restore cuts to military retirees as quickly as possible.”

Overall, lawmakers said the omnibus spending bill, which is expected to pass this week, was 'a good start'. 

“The American people are winners, because we actually got a bipartisan, bicameral bill that directs spending. That's a huge winner,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).