Welcome to Congress – Where the NDAA is Finished but the Budget Doesn’t Matter

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The compromise National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 will come to the House floor for a vote today. The final version of the bill, which is subject only to an up-or-down vote in each house, authorizes a “base budget” of $634.2 billion, or $26.4 billion more than the administration’s initial request. That figure, however, is meaningless without two further Congressional actions, neither of which are particularly likely in the short term.

The first issue is that in order to actually spend the money the NDAA authorizes the Pentagon to spend, Congress must appropriate it in a separate bill. For several years, the government has run on “continuing resolutions,” which, as the name suggests, continue funding at previous levels and usually do not provide for commencement of new programs. The current continuing resolution, which expires on Dec. 8, did not contain what is known in Congress-speak as “anomalies,” or exceptions to the normal rules of a CR.

But even if Congress were to pass a regular Defense Appropriations Act, the amounts approved in the NDAA would still be nothing more than theoretical guidelines, thanks to sequestration. And there’s no indication that Congress has the appetite for amending that law.

The Budget Control Act of 2011, you may recall, amended and revived a Reagan-era law, the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, better known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill. That law, which was a forerunner to the infamous Gramm-Rudman bill that took an axe to defense spending, was Congress’s first attempt to rein-in its own spending habits.

The BCA placed limits on overall spending independent of the totals appropriated in each of the 12 appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year. Without further action, if spending exceeds the prescribed limit, it is automatically reduced through a sequester.

As House Democrats explained in a February fact sheet, “because of the negative consequences of these severe cuts, Congress has yet to allow the full discretionary sequester cuts to take place.” Through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 Congress reduced the impact of these mandatory cuts for 2016 and 2017. But, the Democrats warned, “without action, their full impact would be felt in 2018.”

The Office of Management and Budget’s reporting largely supports that assertion.

The law requires the OMB to report on the potential impacts of sequestration. In August, OMB reported that without changing the discretionary spending limits, “a sequestration of approximately $72,436 million [or put another way, $72.4 billion] would be required in discretionary programs in the defense (or revised security) category.”

In a “hallway gaggle” with reporters yesterday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was asked about this gap. Mattis said that although the Pentagon was “working that issue forward,” he recognized that “we need the support of the broader Congress and therein lies the challenge.” Asked if he was “more sanguine today than you might have been three weeks ago,” Mattis replied that he was not, but nor was he “pessimistic.”

In a 1776 letter to John Adams, Philadelphia patriot Christopher Marshall wrote “The rich, the poor, the high professor and the prophane, seem all to be infected with this grievous disorder, so that the love offer neighbor seems to be quite banished, the love self and opinions so far prevails.” Little has changed in Congress since then, but the consequences today are far more deadly.

The experiment has failed. It’s time to end sequestration.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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