House GOP Budget Leaves Spending Caps in Place

Lawmakers attempt to thread needle by boosting other defense accounts

Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.) / AP
March 18, 2015

House Republicans said on Tuesday that they are attempting to keep deficit spending low while boosting a shrinking defense budget as they unveiled their budget proposal for 2016.

Led by Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, the House GOP released its budget on Tuesday. The proposal leaves in place sequestration caps on defense spending that have been sharply criticized by military leaders and defense hawks in Congress but adds funding to the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

The House GOP budget would provide $523 billion in base funding to the Pentagon, along with $94 billion for the OCO account to fight terrorism abroad. Republicans on the Senate side will also release their budget proposal this week.

Republicans admit that while the spending caps have helped to reduce deficits in recent years and ensure fiscal responsibility, defense spending has also declined during a period of global instability. Members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of House conservatives who will issue their own budget proposal as an amendment next week, said on Tuesday that they are seeking to strike a difficult balance.

"Everybody recognizes that the caps have been a good thing from a fiscal perspective, but I think virtually all of the [GOP] conference realizes that they’ve also been harmful to defense," said Rep. Bill Flores (R., Texas), RSC chairman.

"Now the tension is, how do you fix it?" he added.

The RSC’s budget will likely also maintain the spending caps while finding other ways to bolster defense funds, Flores said.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.), another member of the RSC, said that he continues to hear concerns from constituents about Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine and the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East. More robust defense spending would give long-term certainty to the Pentagon, but the sequester also has its benefits, he said.

"That’s the needle that we’re trying to thread, and it’s tight," he said. "We’ve put ourselves in this very difficult position. The only thing that’s cut government spending has been the sequester—whether we like that or not."

Flores said that the RSC also wants to push for auditing the Pentagon and addressing costly acquisition programs. Some experts have noted that the Pentagon’s civilian workforce has increased in recent years while a greater amount of active-duty troops have been released.

The House GOP strategy’s of keeping sequestration in place while seeking more defense funds for other accounts is unlikely to placate some of the party’s defense hawks. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Monday that he would not vote for a plan that fails to lift the cap on the Pentagon budget. He is calling for a defense budget of $577 billion, the level planned before cuts were enacted in 2011.

"We cannot afford to defer this vital debate," he said. "All of our senior military leaders have testified to Congress this year that if defense spending remains at sequestration levels, they cannot implement the National Military Strategy, and it will put Americans’ lives at risk."

White House budget director Shaun Donovan said last week that President Barack Obama "will not accept a budget that locks in the sequester going forward" but added that he will evaluate the spending bills that Congress passes later this year. The congressional budget serves as a framework for the spending bills that each committee produces.

Budget experts have long noted that entitlement programs, rather than defense spending, will be the primary driver of deficits in the coming years. The House GOP budget features changes to major healthcare programs that were first outlined by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.), including subsides for Medicare recipients to purchase private insurance and a conversion of Medicaid into a block grant program for the states.