Budget Deal: Both Good and Bad News

In case you missed it, last night around 8 PM, the House and Senate released a budget deal that was part omnibus (various appropriations bills tacked together) and part continuing resolution (a temporary funding bill).

This legislation is over 1,600 pages long, and the deadline to pass funding for the government is tomorrow. The idea that members of Congress could possibly have time to read carefully, much less review this legislation in any depth, is of course absurd. And there are other serious concerns.

This bill is just over $1 trillion, and like the Ryan-Murray agreement that preceded it, essentially pays lip service to the Budget Control Act (BCA) by staying under its basic levels, while Congress has all along ignored the sequester, the BCA’s most important consequence. Claiming to follow the BCA while ignoring the sequester is questionable, to say the least.

There are some serious concerns with the specifics as well.

  • $64 billion more to the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, with, as usual, little explanation or oversight.
  • $5.4 billion in emergency funding for the Ebola outbreak.
  • $849 million to refuel and overhaul the George Washington aircraft carrier, which the military itself wanted to retire.

And so on…

We expect to find far more examples as we and other watchdog organizations comb through this massive legislation.

But it’s worth noting that it’s not all bad news. There are some small reductions within the bill, such as $345.6 million cut “and extensive oversight requirements” for the Internal Revenue Service.

And notably, the bill prohibits “risk corridors” within the Affordable Care Act, which is an issue we’ve been writing about and lobbying on behind the scenes for over a year. This provision prevents what would basically amount to a taxpayer bailout, something we at the Coalition have fought against for some time.

Overall, the bill, of course, still spends far too much. While it pays lip service to the BCA, ignoring the sequester is a mistake, as is neglecting opportunities for much-needed budget trimming. Frankly, though, things could have been a lot worse! And several key portions do make necessary reforms.

In a larger sense, we know that fiddling around with discretionary spending at the last minute will never solve our budget woes. Let’s celebrate small victories with even more determination to keep pushing for the type of wide-scale reform so desperately needed.


NDAA agreement is a bad deal for taxpayers

The House and Senate have reached an agreement on proceeding with this year’s National Defense Authorization Act — and it’s bad news for those who care about budget cuts. The House today filed its version of the final agreement, and the Senate will likely move on the deal next week.

Some of the most controversial provisions — and one that had snagged negotiations — has to do with military benefits. Under the final deal, troops would receive a 1-percent pay raise, along with slowed growth in their housing allowance and a $3 increase in most prescription co-pays.

Beyond the controversies, key parts of this legislation should concern everyone who cares about the budget. This measure authorizes $521 billion in base military spending and nearly $64 billion more in overseas contingency funds, including about $5 billion for the current fight in Iraq and Syria. Not only do these levels blow past spending caps and add more war funds to an already bloated slush fund, they throttle important opportunities for spending reform.

There are small victories. Overseas Contingency funding is appropriated at $64 billion.  This is a decrease from 2014’s total OCO funding, at $85 billion, but still neglects oversight or reform of the fund, which critics have labeled a “slush fund.” The total budget is marginally lower at $48 billion less than FY14’s, but includes disappointing choices like allocating an additional $5.8 billion for procuring 34 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, despite bipartisan calls to reconsider the program. It also opens the door for greater overseas involvement moving forward, without a clear blueprint for paying for it.

For instance:

  • Preventing the Defense Department from retiring the A-10, despite the fact that the Air Force itself wants to retire the aging weapon, the only concession being decreased flight hours and maintenance after the completion of a readiness study.
  • Blocking the Army’s plans to retire any Army National Guard Apache helicopters next year.
  • Authorizing President Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS militants.

In addition, according to a press release from Senator Ted Cruz, the measure includes quite a few provisions that are tenuously related to national security — if at all.

  • 250,000 acres of new wilderness designations 400,000 acres withdrawn from productive use (for energy, mining, timber, etc.)
  • Fifteen new national park units or park expansions
  • Eight new studies for national parks
  • Three new wild and scenic river designations, 3 new studies for additional designations
  • Study to begin the National Women’s History Museum

Not every item on these lists can solve our budget crisis alone. But unwillingness even to consider reform is yet another troubling sign that Congress has no intention of continuing with even very modest spending cuts of past years. Keeping America safe requires smart budgeting, not politically motivated boondoggles.

As the new members come to Washington, it’s all the more important to remind them of their campaign promises and their duty to keep America safe with sound budgets.

50,000 ‘ghost’ soldiers in Iraqi army

While Congress moves forward with the 2015 Defense Budget that requests $1.2 billion in training and equipment for the Iraqi army next year, a startling report has come to light.

The Iraqi army has been paying salaries to at least 50,000 soldiers who don’t exist, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Sunday, an indication of the level of corruption that permeates an institution that the United States has spent billions equipping and arming.

A preliminary investigation into “ghost soldiers” — whose salaries are being drawn but who are not in military service — revealed the tens of thousands of false names on Defense Ministry rolls, Abadi told parliament Sunday. Follow-up investigations are expected to uncover “more and more,” he added.

Between 2003 and 2011, the United States spent more than $20 billion on Iraq’s army, and there are no indications that the US will halt its involvement anytime in the near future.

This news is yet another example of why scrutiny and audits are needed across the budgetary spectrum. Read the full report here.

Sen. Sessions: We should know additional funds are necessary

Jeff-SessionsWith Republicans now in charge of the Senate, many are counting on a rollback of sequestration and budget caps on the Pentagon. But one Alabama lawmaker could stand in the way of hasty plans to spend more taxpayer money carelessly.

[Senator Jeff Sessions] who’s in line to take over the Senate Budget Committee in January, and other lawmakers seeking to lower the U.S. deficit say they aren’t convinced the Pentagon needs more money. Even if they agree, restoring funds to the military would require comparable cuts to domestic programs, which Democrats reject.

“I’m going to be pushing to examine what their needs are,” Sessions, who’s planning a series of hearings, said in an interview. “We don’t want to add additional monies until we know what we want to add it for and be sure that we need it.”

These statements are very encouraging for anyone who wants to keep America safe with smart budgeting, not politically motivated big spending.

Hagel to resign

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has presided over everything from sequestration to the recent ISIS unrest, is set to resign today, the New York Times reports:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises.

The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.

The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.


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