Last week, the House and Senate Budget Committees released their proposed resolutions for the fiscal year 2016 budget. While the subsequent concurrent resolution, if passed, does not have the force of law, it serves as a framework for debate over the budget by setting targets for spending and revenue. On the defense budget, the House got the debate over the resolution off to a controversial start.
The House Budget Committee attempted to appease both fiscal hawks and defense hawks with its resolution. The committee maintained Budget Control Act (BCA) caps for spending on national defense, but it made up the difference by further inflating overseas contingency operations (OCO) spending from $50.9 billion to $94 billion. The gimmick managed to anger both sides of the debate, with fiscal hawks decrying the attempt to bypass BCA spending limits and defense hawks bemoaning the fact that the resolution tied $20 billion of the increased OCO spending to finding offsets elsewhere in the budget. The Senate budget resolution sought even more for the OCO account, with an amendment from South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham boosting the total to $96 billion and eliminating the need for offsets.
While it looks like defense hawks scored a clear victory on the budget resolution, what comes next remains very murky. As Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute told Politico’s Pro Defense, it is a near certainty Democrats in Congress will not allow the increased spending on defense—even if it is technically in line with the BCA caps—without commensurate increases in non-defense spending.
Whatever Democrats decide though, it seems likely that the real fight will remain within the Republican Party. Defense hawks are counting on increased unease about national security in light of events over the past year in Ukraine, the South and East China seas, and the Middle East generating support for upping the defense budget. Recent polls do suggest the American people are showing more concern about future terrorist attacks against the United States than they have in recent years when economic recovery has been the most important issue. Leaving aside whether increased defense spending is appropriate against asymmetric threats such as terrorism, defense hawks are sure to take increased interest in national security as a sign that momentum is on their side.
However, fiscal hawks have an ace up their sleeve in this fight: the 2016 presidential election. Even with increased attention on national security, presidential elections rarely hinge on foreign policy. Historically, only three to five percent of American voters base their electoral decisions on foreign policy. Moreover, the race for the Republican nomination begins in Iowa and New Hampshire. As Politico reported late last week,
As congressional Republicans battle over whether to increase military spending or appease fiscal conservatives, 90 percent of GOP insiders in New Hampshire and Iowa say voters care more about cutting the federal deficit than increasing the defense budget, this week’s POLITICO Caucus survey finds.
A group of GOP respondents said the base wants to invest in the military, citing the recent rise of ISIL, but vehemently dislikes the idea of risking further debt. “Deficits just do not sit well with conservatives, so finding a way to control spending is more important than increased military spending right now,” said an Iowa Republican, one of the 90 anonymous participants.
One key factor is that residents of Iowa and New Hampshire don’t perceive as many direct benefits from an increase in military spending. “Despite the fact that we have numerous businesses that rely on Department of Defense contracts, … more voters care about the deficit and overall national debt than they do military spending,” one New Hampshire Republican said
Such a large majority favoring deficit reduction over increased defense spending means that those candidates currently serving in Congress who would normally be sympathetic to increased defense spending will likely have to prioritize deficit reduction. With the Republicans’ slim majority in the Senate, even a few defections would tip the balance against the defense hawks.