Armed Services chairman moves forward with $640B defense policy bill

Armed Services chairman moves forward with $640B defense policy bill
© Greg Nash

The House Armed Services Committee is moving ahead with plans for a $640 billion defense base budget in its annual policy bill, something the panel's chairman has advocated for months.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday that "as no surprise" the committee was moving forward on the figure.

“I think $640 is what we need to address the problems that have developed from sequestration and that tempo of operations over the years," he said, referring to automatic spending cuts.

The move sets up a potential showdown with the White House, which proposed a $603 billion defense budget. It also could be in conflict with Congress's budget, as the Budget Committee is eyeing a $621 billion defense budget.

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All three figures are higher than caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which is $549 billion.

Thornberry stressed that negotiations are ongoing and that he could be convinced to lower the topline in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) before next week’s mark up if he gets assurances on stability for future funding.

“If I were to agree to a lower number, I would need some sort of added stability to the out years,” he said.

“What we’ve done under the BCA is every year try to scramble to try to figure out how to avoid a disaster and meanwhile the problems keep mounting. There is value if we can get away from this and have more stability, more predictability for future years defense," he added.

Coupled with a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the committee’s version of the NDAA as it stands now would authorize $705 billion for the Pentagon and other defense programs such as the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs.

Thornberry has the power to set the NDAA at whatever funding level he pleases regardless of what budget Congress passes. But experts have said that’s inadvisable as it sends mixed messages to the Pentagon and itself causes instability.

Asked about that issue, Thornberry said Thursday that budget instability can’t get worse than it is now.

“I don’t think we’re going to be creating any more instability than they’ve lived under under the BCA, where they’ve had to wait until December and see if we can have a big enough OCO and all of those things,” he said. “If we can get everybody on the same page, I think that’s better. If we can provide some stability over the next several years, I think that’s even better, and that’s my goal, but we’ll take this a step at a time.”

It’s unclear what specifically will get Thornberry to agree to a lower NDAA topline.

“I want something where $549 [billion] is not hanging over our heads, and there’s a variety of ways to do that,” he said. “I think we can start setting the table that would encourage either a repeal of the caps or a reset of the caps or something along that line.”

“There’s several pieces in the conversation,” he added later. “I would in general say there’s a value to me and to the Pentagon and to I think all of the managers involved in defense to have greater stability in defense budgets.”

The GOP chairman said he doesn’t expect pushback from the Pentagon on going higher than the administration’s budget request, given that Defense Secretary James Mattis told his committee he supports what’s in the services's unfunded requirement lists submitted to Congress.

At hearings on Capitol Hill last week, Mattis said he didn’t oppose the services's unfunded requirements lists, but that he believes the administration’s request was a sufficient start to address readiness issues. 

“I don't take any issue with the unfunded priorities list as far as the requirement,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee. “I think the base budget has the right priorities. If there is more money available, then I think that it's a pretty good list.”