Friday, October 23, 2015

Budgetary and Political Impasses

     The American political system appears as fractured as ever. In one of the more recent theatrical escapades, President Obama vetoed the military’s annual appropriations measure called the National Defense Authorization Act. This massive piece of legislation includes measures pertaining to the authorization of funds for deployments, operations, and regulations concerning the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

     The president said in his statement to Congress that “While there are provisions in this bill that I support… the bill would, among other things, constrain the ability of the Department of Defense to conduct multi-year defense planning and align military capabilities and force structure with our national defense strategy, impede the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and prevent the implementation of essential defense reforms.” The president continued that the measure does not fund national defense in a fiscally responsible manner under funding the military’s base budget and relying “on an irresponsible budget gimmick that has been criticized by members of both parties….the bill's use of $38 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding -- which was meant to fund wars and is not subject to budget caps -- does not provide the stable, multi-year budget upon which sound defense planning depends.” The issue of using OCO funding to skirt budget caps has been a big issue of contention for some time.

     Similarly, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has decried the budgeting process saying it must be adjusted, reformed and changed referring to it as “herky-jerky.” Carter believes, much like the president, that this form of budgeting limits forward planning saying in an interview with Foreign Affairs recently;
“The herky-jerky, on-and-off annual decision-making stops us from spending money efficiently in the way that the taxpayer expects. It means that our troops and their families don’t have a perspective on the future and feel at risk. It gives a misleadingly diminished picture of America around the world, suggesting that we can’t get our act together. It’s at odds with the ability of our partners in the defense industry to have an efficient business strategy and therefore to continue to support us.”
     As for the members of Congress that have worked on the legislation, they believe that the president is playing politics with the nation’s defense and soldiers. “In vetoing this legislation, President Obama has made history, but for all the wrong reasons. He has become the first commander-in-chief willing to sacrifice national security by vetoing a bill that authorizes pay, benefits and training for U.S. troops, simply because he seeks leverage to pursue his domestic political agenda,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) – the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively - wrote in an op-ed. “The president didn’t veto the bill because of any of its policies…Instead, President Obama’s veto was about broader spending issues that have absolutely nothing to do with defense. By vowing recently that he ‘will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending,’ the president is holding the military hostage to increase funding for Washington bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.”

     The chairmen when on to say that the president’s veto does nothing to stop sequestration or the caps on the budget – this is an issue that must be addressed by the appropriations committees in Congress, they say. Furthermore, the chairmen assert that the bill authorizes “every dollar of the $612 billion that President Obama requested for national defense. His objection is over an obscure mechanism using the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO account, to lift defense spending above the harmful caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. If there is more money for U.S. troops, he demands more money for the EPA. It’s that simple.”

     Unfortunately, this fight is the same song but different dance. During recent budgetary battles, the president has sparred with political opponents in Congress over funding the government as a whole as well as raising the debt ceiling, which authorizes the U.S. to pay bills already incurred abroad.

     Both sides similarly accused each other of playing politics with important measures. During the last government shutdown in 2013, Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) led the charge maintaining that the president’s signature healthcare legislation be defunded prior to passing a continuing resolution to keep the government open. While Democrats accused the Republicans of holding the nation hostage for their own political reasons, Republicans shot right back saying that the Democrats were keeping the government shutdown to keep the president’s “disastrous” health care law intact.

     Last year, the averted shutdown battle was from the left led by the Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) "wing" of the Democratic Party. Warren wanted to shut the government down over the objection of measures snuck into legislation by Republicans to defang Wall Street reform against big banks. Now there is another government shutdown threat, this time over Planned Parenthood despite the objection of a vast majority of Americans. Initially, a shutdown was averted in September with the signing of a short-term continuing resolution that only funded the government until December in order to give Congress more time to hash-out disputes.

     President Obama has also threatened that he is done signing continuing resolutions to fund the government which, as opposed to typical funding packages, only fund the government at existing levels – essentially resulting in a band-aid or status quo effect. “I want to be very clear, I will not sign another shortsighted spending bill like the one Congress sent me this week…We purchased ourselves 10 additional weeks. We need to use them effectively,” Obama said at the beginning of October. According to reporting by The Hill, “Obama went on to call on policymakers to find a way to undo the sequester cuts currently in place, arguing they were holding back a U.S. economy that may be seeing its recovery faltering.”

     Sequestration was never supposed to be permanent and as some lawmakers have said “sequester was if we can’t do something good, then let’s do something stupid,” Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) said at a Senate Budget Committee hearing in March. Sequestration was supposed to be so bad that it forced lawmakers to come to an agreement rather than arbitrary across the board cuts.

     It is unclear what will happen in the near future with the NDAA as it appears Republicans do not have enough votes in Congress to override the president’s veto - and the same goes for funding the government. Regardless, political objections have been boiling over for some time and could soon come to a catastrophic head. This back and forth jockeying is one of the main drivers for non-politicians leading in presidential polls. However, it is unlikely that these non-politicians will be able to bridge the many divides and make government work again.  At this point, it is unclear what will bridge the divide.

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