Defense spending bill finds creative ways to shift billions

House appropriators use obscure sources to pay for things the president didn't request

The House Appropriations Committee hearing room in the Rayburn Building. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House Appropriations Committee hearing room in the Rayburn Building. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:00am

ANALYSIS — Appropriators have done it again.

As is their custom, they have managed to write a fiscal 2021 Defense spending bill in the House, which will soon be mirrored in the Senate, that adds billions of dollars for programs that did not make the cut in the president’s budget.

And — this is the hard part — they paid for it all by dredging up at least $5 billion from obscure sources that virtually no one but they knew about, and few will ever be able to explain.

This year, the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee’s nearly $695 billion bill, which the panel will mark up behind closed doors on Wednesday, manages to bankroll billions in lawmakers' priorities that the president did not request in his budget, while at the same time subtracting relatively few things that were requested.

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And yet, as if by magic, the total amount of money in the House bill still comes in about $3.7 billion less than the president’s plan.

When Senate appropriators weigh in soon with their own companion Defense spending bill, it too will reflect the same legerdemain, snatching billions of dollars seemingly out of thin air.

Specifically, the House’s new Defense measure would add money for two major priorities: weaponry that the White House did not officially request and medical research at Defense Department labs.

Weapons, including against disease

First, the hardware.

Every year, Defense appropriators in both chambers provide about $1 billion that is never officially requested for a special fund that the National Guard later taps to pay for still-to-be-determined equipment. The new House bill contains, of course, $1 billion for the fund, which is called the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account.

To critics, it is a slush fund that, unlike the rest of the equipment budget, is subject to only after-the-fact reporting to Congress in an obscure report that draws little attention.

To supporters, the fund is a lifeline for reservists who are said to typically get the short end of the budget stick.

Other hardware programs were also favored. The procurement account was $4.1 billion above the president’s request — notably including $2.4 billion for new warships such as a second Virginia-class submarine next year.

Another program favored by appropriators is medical research, which typically nets as much as $1 billion each year due to strong support among appropriators in both chambers.

The community of researchers are happy to take advantage annually of the bountiful Pentagon budget to fund their fight against cancer and other diseases, rather than just get by on the Department of Health and Human Services’ comparative scraps.

Some critics — including, formerly, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — have questioned whether the Defense Department is the right place for such work. But the desire to use whatever funds are available to combat deadly scourges has always won out over the naysayers.

It will again this year. The House subcommittee’s bill includes $513 million for cancer research and $175 million for psychological and brain-injury research — none of it formally requested by the Pentagon.

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Obscure fonts of funds

House appropriators pay for part of their largesse this year by providing $1.2 billion less than requested for military personnel accounts and $1 billion less for research programs. These reductions are made in numerous different, identifiable programs.

The biggest single source of funds, though, is something of a mystery.

Some $4 billion in savings would come from clawing back — or “rescinding,” as it’s called — appropriations enacted in prior years. At the top of that list is $1.1 billion subtracted from a program to train and equip Afghan army and police units.

When these programs were requested and then authorized and appropriated, many of them were subject to hours of hearings and written justifications that the public can see.

But when they are rescinded, billions of dollars go away with only the name of the program cited in the back of a report — for example, $237 million from "Aircraft Procurement, Air Force." Even the trade press rarely covers these financial moves.

The other source of funds for appropriators — and it, too, is a perennial one — is lower-than-expected fuel costs, which generated $1 billion in the House panel's new bill.

Somehow, fuel cost estimates are regularly overstated, providing appropriators with a ready source of cash come markup time.

They always find a way to use it.