House "Cromnibus" Rightly Boosts Defense Spending, but Fails Test of Fiscal Responsibility

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

House "Cromnibus" Rightly Boosts Defense Spending, but Fails Test of Fiscal Responsibility

Dec 20th, 2017 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Justin Bogie

Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs

Justin Bogie serves as Senior Policy Analyst in Fiscal Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
Providing for national defense is a core constitutional duty and should be the top priority for Congress. iStock

The House of Representatives is expected this week to debate H.R. 1370, which would fund national defense through the remainder of fiscal year 2018 and extend funding for all other discretionary programs until Jan. 19 via a continuing resolution.

It would also provide funding extensions to several mandatory programs and potentially add more supplemental funding for hurricane and wildfire relief.

The bill offers no offsets, however, to pay for the additional spending.

Providing for national defense is a core constitutional duty and should be the top priority for Congress. There is a fiscally responsible path to provide for critical defense needs, but adding tens of billions of dollars in unpaid-for spending increases is irresponsible.

And that’s just the beginning. Congress will likely consider a budget-busting caps deal early next year that would increase defense and nondefense spending by more than $200 billion over the next two years.

Instead of busting the Budget Control Act caps, Congress should seize the opportunity to reform the law and make meaningful reforms to discretionary and mandatory spending that will prioritize defense and put the budget on a more sustainable fiscal path.

The continuing resolution omnibus spending bill (“cromnibus”) would increase 2018 base defense spending to $619 billion. This is $70 billion higher than the 2018 Budget Control Act cap for defense and $16 billion above President Donald Trump’s funding request.

It is beyond question that the defense budget was targeted to bear a disproportionate amount of the Budget Control Act’s cuts. Pentagon officials have continually expressed concerns over how lawmakers have cut their budgets even as their mission requirements have expanded.

The House funding proposal would extend other discretionary programs at the fiscal 2017 level through Jan. 19. Because the Budget Control Act caps in 2018 are lower than the funding level lawmakers enacted in 2017, that would mean the nondefense category would be $4 billion higher than the limit.

If the House proposal were to pass, this would trigger an across-the-board reduction of funding (sequestration) 15 days after the end of the current session of Congress under the provisions of the law. Congress could delay the reductions for the duration of the continuing resolution.

There are tens of billions of dollars in wasteful and inefficient programs that could be cut in 2018. Instead of continuing funding at the current level or passing another deal that busts the budget caps, Congress should live within its means and prioritize defense spending within the aggregate Budget Control Act cap.

The “cromnibus” would also appropriate an additional $81 billion in emergency disaster relief funding for areas devastated by hurricanes and wildfires. Thus far, Congress has appropriated nearly $52 billion for this purpose.

The president’s latest request was for an additional $44 billion, and Congress has nearly doubled that amount with this bill. None of this funding has been paid for with offsetting spending reductions.

Carrying out lifesaving response and long-term recovery efforts for those directly affected by these natural disasters is a national priority. About half of the funding appropriated and requested so far has gone to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund for those purposes.

However, the remaining funds have gone toward community development block grants and Small Business Administration grants, debt forgiveness for the troubled National Flood Insurance Program (but without addressing needed programmatic reforms), and to fight wildfires in the western United States.

The House “cromnibus” would add on to that list with agricultural,  transportation, and education subsidies. The effectiveness of these grant programs is questionable at best, but they certainly do not meet the criteria of an emergency.

The National Flood Insurance Program and wildfire mitigation and response are two issues that Congress should take action to reform, but a government funding bill is not the proper vehicle for that debate.

Finally, the bill extends mandatory programs, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the VA Choice program. Like the flood and wildfire programs, CHIP has structural problems that must be addressed. The VA Choice program should also be re-evaluated and improved so that it can provide targeted care to those veterans who truly need it.

Those issues should be thoroughly debated through the regular order process, not attached to an 11th-hour funding bill.

While the House proposal would provide a needed boost and greater predictability for defense programs, it falls short in almost all other areas.

Instead of cutting wasteful programs to pay for more defense spending, it maintains the status quo and sets the stage for another budget-busting deal in the coming weeks.

It also oversteps its boundaries into other policy areas that should be debated separately.

Instead of more of the same, Americans deserve a responsible, accountable, and transparent government. This bill fails to meet that test.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal