Sequestration has elicited garment-rending from Head Start administrators and builders of bridges to nowhere, because it has proven about the only fiscal discipline of which Washington, D.C., is capable. President Obama, eager to end his presidency in an Oprah-style spending spree, is determined to bust through the sequestration spending caps locked into place in 2011, and he is even willing to hold the United States military hostage to do it. Hence his veto, last week, of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The great flaw of sequestration has been that it cuts defense too deeply. On that point, there is bipartisan agreement. The president’s defense request, submitted earlier this year, calls for $612 billion in defense spending – $38 billion over the budget caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The NDAA fulfills that request by allocating $38 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, an “emergency” fund not subject to budget caps. Using OCO to fund standard personnel expenses, such as pay raises, is not ideal; renegotiating the BCA spending caps to facilitate adequate defense funding is the only long-term solution. But a stopgap measure is far better than leaving the military underfunded, which the heads of the armed services all agree would put American soldiers at risk, and would be the consequence of not using OCO funds. The president is vetoing the NDAA less because of anything in it – although he makes fig-leaf arguments about its contents – than because he wants Congress to increase domestic spending too. He is less interested in keeping the military sufficiently funded than in using the military as leverage to end the budget caps on spending for “job training” and other of his pet programs.
Finally, behind the veto is also the president’s attention to his legacy. The NDAA restricts the transfer of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, which would make it harder for the president to shut down the facility before he leaves office.
Several Democrats who voted for the bill are preparing to switch their votes to uphold the president’s veto, shamelessly acquiescing to his fiscal brinkmanship. These troops the president is eager to rally. Our men and women in uniform, though, facing perhaps the most complex, dangerous assortment of crises in years: They are his political pawns.