Carter Blasts GOP Plan to Use War Funds for Base Defense Budget

Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The top civilian at the Defense Department slammed Republican lawmakers' plan to use emergency war funding to get around spending caps on the base defense budget.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter criticized the idea as a "road to nowhere" in testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee.

"While this approach clearly recognizes that the budget total we've requested is needed, the avenue it takes is just as clearly a road to nowhere," he said. "President Obama has already made clear that he won't accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward, as this approach does," he said, referring to automatic spending caps.

Echoing the commander-in-chief's own warnings about the proposal, Carter added: "Legislation that implements this budget framework will therefore be subject to veto."

The Republican-led Congress crafted a spending plan for fiscal year 2016, beginning Oct. 1, that includes almost $100 billion in funding for the Defense Department's overseas contingency operations. That's almost $40 billion more than what the Pentagon requested for the account, which was created more than a decade ago mainly to fund combat operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq. What's more, it would be in addition to a base budget of roughly $500 billion.

If approved, it would mark the highest level of war funding in four years, even though the number of American troops in war zones has plummeted since fiscal 2012. The House of Representatives voted in favor of the plan in March and the Senate followed suit this week.

GOP members have defended the move as a way to give military and defense-related programs the funding they need while still adhering to the spending caps prescribed in the 2011 deficit-reduction legislation known as the Budget Control Act. The bill exempted certain accounts, including OCO, from the spending restrictions.

Republicans arrived at the $96 billion in added war funding quite simply. They took the Obama administration's $58 billion request for OCO (including related State Department activities), then added the $38 billion the White House is seeking for the regular defense budget beyond the spending limits. The Pentagon's base budget request is $534 billion.

Critics, however, have said the GOP plan would create a revolving defense "slush fund." In addition, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle -- such as Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, ranking member of Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee -- have likened the tactic to budget chicanery.

"There are efforts within the House and Senate to increase defense spending by using what is in fact a budget gimmick, namely to shift tens of billions of dollars of funds from the base budget over to the overseas contingency operations account," Durbin said during Wednesday's hearing. "Moving programs from the base bill to the war funding account adds to our problems instead of fixing them."

A senior defense official, who spoke on background, said the defense secretary is concerned that congressional Republicans are pushing a partisan plan that's doomed to fail and wanted committee members to instead consider a bipartisan deal that would guarantee multi-year funding for the military.

"The Secretary sees this committee as home to a number of honest brokers on both sides of the aisle that could become a key part of a future deal," the official wrote in an e-mail.

In his testimony, Carter warned the lack of a political agreement on the defense budget will have consequences for the military and its personnel.

"If we don't come together and find a different path by fall, when a new budget is needed, it will put our department and our troops in an all too familiar and very difficult position," he said. "We will yet again have to make very hasty and drastic decisions to adjust to the failure to have an adequate DoD budget --decisions that none of us want to be made."

He added: "The Joint Chiefs and I are concerned that if our Congressional committees continue to advance this idea and don't explore alternatives, then we'll all be left holding the bag."

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com

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