House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. 'Buck' McKeon, R-Calif. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the 2015 defense annual authorization bill Thursday, rejecting Pentagon plans for benefits reductions, base closures and a host of program cuts all designed to rein in military spending.
The bill would authorize total defense spending of about $600 billion next year — $521.3 billion in the national security base budget and $79.4 billion more for overseas operations — but has been criticized by both lawmakers and Pentagon planners as too small.
That’s due to spending caps imposed by Congress earlier this year, and looming sequestration limits for future defense budgets.
In recent months, military leaders repeatedly petitioned House members to approve their preferred equipment and personnel cuts to pass without interference, saying even small changes would rack up billions in costs in years to come. But those pleas largely went unheeded.
The House plan goes along with proposals to trim military active-duty end strength by about 52,000 soldiers, airmen and Marines next year. But it rejects plans to curb housing allowance rates, cut the commissary benefit, overhaul Tricare and limit troops’ pay raises.
Under the House bill, troops would be in line to receive a 1.8 percent pay raise next year, keeping military wages in line with projected private-sector paycheck growth — although House lawmakers failed to include a specific guarantee for that figure in the legislation, giving the White House an open path to implement its preferred 1 percent pay raise instead.
House members also rearranged millions of dollars in the Pentagon’s original blueprint to keep the Air Force’s A-10 fleet, maintain 11 Navy aircraft carriers and block Army plans to transfer Apache helicopters from the National Guard to the active force.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., defended the moves as prudent defense posturing, not parochial decisions. But he also acknowledged that the defense spending caps on the horizon will make decisions even more difficult next year — after he retires from Congress.
“We had to make too many cuts, too many hard tradeoffs, and too many reductions to bring this bill in with $30 billion less than we gave DoD last year,” McKeon said. “This year we were able to hold off disaster. Unless something changes, the choices next year will be brutal.”
Despite voting for the measure, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the armed services committee’s ranking Democrat, bemoaned what he called the short-sighted fiscal decisions in the measure.
“This bill does not make any of the hard choices necessary to confront our fiscal challenges,” Smith said in a statement. “Congress simply undid all of the department’s cost-saving measures and slashed readiness accounts without offering alternatives.”
Republicans blocked Smith’s attempts to spur floor debate on another round of base closings, a move that he and defense officials argue could save billions in years to come. But lawmakers in both the House and Senate have repeatedly rejected the idea, calling it unwise and politically unpopular.
House leaders also blocked debate on measures regarding citizenship for immigrants who enlist and overhauling how sexual assault cases are prosecuted in the military. They also refused to allow debate on an amendment looking at military force authorization in Afghanistan past 2014, prompting sponsor Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to protest the legislative stalling tactics of his colleagues.
Senators will debate their own authorization bill proposal in that chamber in coming weeks. Many of the Pentagon cost-savings provisions rejected by the House likewise have found little support in the Senate, providing a disappointing forecast for defense budget planners.
The White House has already threatened a veto of whatever final bill emerges, both due to the spending priority changes and provisions that would require detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, to remain open.