The budgetary game of 'Chicken' needs to end

On July 6, 2016, President Obama announced that the United States will leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan instead of the previously planned 5,500. He says that this troop level of 8,400 will be achieved by the end of the Obama administration and it will be inherited by the next president. Regardless of the wisdom of the President’s Afghanistan strategy or the troop level, one important aspect of this decision will play a major role when Congress comes back in session: how to pay for these troops.

It has been reported that the same game of chicken that Republicans and Democrats have been playing for the past five years is going to take place again. Since the Budget Control Act of 2011 divided the discretionary budget into defense and non-defense, defense hawks have been trying to increase the defense portion of the budget, while big government advocates will only accept defense spending increases with increased non-defense spending.

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This very point has been publicized as a part of a “Statement of Administration Policy” by the White House. It reads “it is critical that the Congress adhere to the principle that any increase in funding must be shared equally between defense and non-defense – a central tenet of last fall's budget agreement.” Regardless of need or ability to properly leverage increased resources on either side of the discretionary spending budget, if one side gets an increase the other side is required to get one as well.

This equitable increase tenet means that for the past five years, budget agreements have been brokered between defense hawks and big government supporters. Both sides get increases and the federal government goes a bit farther into taxpayers’ pockets or a little bit more into debt, keeping us on the same track towards insolvency or bankruptcy. The real loser is the American public who get to experience yet another increase in the size of government through a charade that has no end in sight.

The divide between defense and non-defense spending in the budget process was initially created to incentivize both parties to reach a compromise in spending reductions after the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration. Instead it has incentivized both sides to agree to increase government spending equally. The model has failed to achieve the savings that its proponents anticipated. This coming fall we will get a chance to observe it at work again with the increased troop level request.

According to estimates published by Politico, the additional troops are expected to cost $3 billion to $6 billion. Congressional politics guarantee that whatever the real number is to keep those additional troops in Afghanistan, it will likely double by the time that the bill comes due. Because the increased troop level was not included in the original budget submission for fiscal year 2017, the funding source still needs to be determined and will require extensive, and likely heated, discussions.

One can hope that this coming arguments will be enough to turn the attention of lawmakers to a first step in fixing how the federal government budgets: passing a long term continuing resolution, allowing the 115thCongress develop a new budget process that works.

By passing a long term continuing resolution, lawmakers will avoid one crafted during a lame duck Congress, when retiring politicians commit taxpayers to more spending and debt. This better option will leave the 115th Congress, with newly elected — and accountable — legislators, responsible for spending decisions in 2017 and beyond. 

Fred Ferreira is a policy analyst at Concerned Veterans for America.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.