Spending Bills Clear Congress, Despite Delays

By Laicie Heeley

After more than a few budget antics this weekend, both the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 3979) and FY15 Omnibus (H.R. 83), or “Cromnibus,” have cleared Congress.

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees completed behind-the-scenes negotiations on the NDAA on December 1st then moved on to a vote in the House on December 5th, where the bill passed 300-119. On December 12th, the Senate lent its approval to the bill by a vote of 89-11, marking the 53rd consecutive NDAA approved by Congress. Though given the usual delay and 10 months without the opportunity for amendments in the Senate, the legislation was finalized mostly behind closed doors.

The bill, which includes $495.9 billion for the base defense budget plus $17.5 billion for nuclear weapons-related activities at the Department of Energy and another $63.7 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, technically comes in under the Murray-Ryan budget caps. But that’s before you consider any spending that shifted in the mix.

Since the OCO account isn’t included in the caps, much of that $63.7 billion is now authorized to fund a host of programs unrelated to the wars (the original purpose for the account), including $810 million for a European Reassurance Initiative, $55 million to retain the air superiority of the U.S. Air Force, and $351 million for Israel’s Iron Dome.

Beyond OCO, the NDAA provides full funding of the administration’s request for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Littoral Combat Ship, KC-46A Tanker, V-22, B61 Life Extension Program, and Virginia Class Submarine.

The bill denies Pentagon requests to save money by retiring 100 238 A-10 Warthog attack jets, transferring Apache helicopters from the Army National Guard to the active force, cutting the commissary program, and conducting a new round of base closures. It plusses up the requested amount for the Abrams Tank and the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, provides unrequested funding for the refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, and authorizes $450 million in unrequested funds for five additional EA-18G Growlers. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), which is charged with securing loose nuclear material mostly in Russia, also saw an increase of $50 million, from $333 million to $383 million.

The legislation permits a “one-time modest increase” of $3 for pharmacy co-pays for retail prescriptions and mail-order non-generic prescriptions and includes a 1 percent decrease to the basic housing allowance in 2015. It provides a 1 percent pay raise for troops, less than an anticipated 1.8 percent they would have received based on private-sector wage growth.

The NDAA also makes room for a new slush fund of sorts. The bill authorizes a National Sea-based Deterrence Fund to pay for the Ohio-class nuclear submarine replacement program the Navy can’t afford, complete with an authorization of $100 million. The fund would appear in the Defense-wide budget, rather than in the Navy’s own budget, and would provide a workaround for the Navy’s bloated shipbuilding budget in the coming years. The Cromnibus, responsibly, does not include such a provision.

On the bright side, the bill includes some key Center and Council-supported accountability measures that we supported along with partners, including a limitation on basic pay increases for general and flag officers in FY15, a requirement that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) review cost estimates for nuclear weapons every two years, a requirement for an analysis of enduring mission requirements in the next Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and restrictions on the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund.

Click here for a full summary of the NDAA.

The appropriations committee conferees, for their part, agreed on a $1.1 trillion Fiscal Year 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill that combines 11 bills with a Continuing Resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security — for what apparently amounts to a “Cromnibus” — early last week. On December 11th, the House narrowly approved the bill by a vote of 219-206, with both Democrats and Republicans split.

When the Senate took up the bill, the fun really began. Hampered by the attempts of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) to block the bill, the chamber struggled into the weekend. Cruz and Lee sought to hold the bill up in hopes that the Senate would vote to defund President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration. Finally, late on December 13th, the two senators got a vote on the constitutionality of the executive orders. After a “point of order” was called, twenty senators joined the pair in voting to call the executive orders unconstitutional, but a bipartisan majority of 74 Senators rejected the motion. The Senate voted to pass the spending measure 56-40 after previously adopting cloture ending debate on the bill 77-19. Again, Republicans and Democrats were split.

The bill includes $490.2 billion in base Pentagon spending and an additional $64 billion for OCO, among other egregious line items.

PanelThe legislation approves additional funding for nuclear weapons and nonproliferation activities, fully funds the B61 Life Extension Program, and provides $345 million, an increase of $124 million, for the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility. It cuts the administration’s request for GTRI, however, from $333 million to $326 million, a significant reduction from FY14 funding of $442 million. It provides funding for four additional F-35 fighter jets (bringing the total to 38), $80 million in long-lead funding for an additional Littoral Combat Ship on top of $1.5 billion for 3 LCS, $120 million in unrequested funding for Abrams tank upgrades, and funding to refuel and overhaul the George Washington aircraft carrier.

Additional goodies appearing in the OCO account, derided as a “slush fund and a convenient escape from the Budget Control Act spending caps” by Center ED Angela Canterbury in DOD Buzz, include $1.2 billion for “miscellaneous equipment” for the military’s reserve components and $3.3 billion for classified Air Force equipment purchases.

Click here for a full summary of the Cromnibus.

So that’s that. Santa came early for some programs and left coal in the stockings of others. And since most spending decisions were made behind closed doors, plenty of feathers remained ruffled and waiting for a new Congress to take over next year.

The good news? The Cruz-Lee delays gave Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) the opportunity to move towards clearing a number of Obama Administration nominations including Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Frank Rose, an important member part of the national security team at the Department of State responsible for key nuclear and defense issues who has been waiting to do his job for over 500 days.