WH issues veto threat on defense approps bill

As summer heats up, the stalemate continues between the White House and House Republicans.

The House’s Republican-controlled defense committees are 0 for 2 so far this year in yielding legislation that President Obama could sign. That may not come as a shock.

Still, there it is: Having already threatened to veto the House Armed Services’ Committee’s defense authorization bill in May, the White House has now threatened to veto the House Appropriations Committee’s defense bill, which sets aside funding for the Defense Department.

Why? The Office of Management and Budget said the approps bill not only breaks the spirit of last year’s deficit reduction agreement, it also would rob funds from other important accounts and leave DoD less ready to carry on its missions and would let HAC-D get away with overstepping the bounds of holding the Pentagon’s wallet.

Said OMB:

[P]assing H.R. 5856 at its current funding level would mean that when the Congress constructs other appropriations bills, it would necessitate significant and harmful cuts to critical national priorities such as education, research and development, job training, and health care. Furthermore, the bill undermines key investments in high-priority programs, impeding the ability of the Secretary of Defense to carry out the defense strategic guidance issued earlier this year, and hindering the ability of the armed forces to carry out their missions consistent with the new strategy. The administration also strongly objects to the inclusion of ideological and political provisions that are beyond the scope of funding legislation.

House appropriators have no business putting restrictions on the U.S. relationship with Pakistan; the administration’s ability to handle detainees; and “other provisions in the bill,” OMB said.

As for the specific programs that HAC-D wanted to protect, the White House argued that everyone agreed last year the Pentagon would have to tighten its belt, and as such it needs the freedom to pull back or divest some of the things we’ve heard so, so much about this year.

The bill would have restricted the Air Force and Army from “divesting, transferring or retiring unneeded aircraft” — i.e. the C-27J Spartans; C-23 Sherpas; and Global Hawk Block 30s — and such “would impair the ability of the Secretary to manage the Department and, by retaining large numbers of under-resourced aircraft in the fleet in today’s fiscally constrained environment, could contribute to a hollow force,” OMB said.

It also echoed Secretary Panetta’s recent appeal to Congress for $400 million to turn out the lights on the Medium Extended Air Defense System, warning that lawmakers’ penny-pinchery in this area could give the U.S. a black eye with some important allies:

If the Congress does not appropriate the funding in the FY 2013 Budget request, there is a high likelihood that this action would be perceived by our partners, Italy and Germany, as breaking our commitment under the Memorandum of Understanding.  This could harm our relationship with our allies on a much broader basis, including future multinational cooperative projects.  It also could prevent the completion of the agreed proof of concept activities, which would provide data archiving, analysis of testing, and software development necessary to harvest technology from U.S. and partner investments in MEADS.

That “harvest” is important, defense officials argue, if the U.S. is going to take what it can from the remnants of MEADS under the Army belief that there’s no such thing as a failed program.

Other interesting points in OMB’s veto threat include the defense of DoD’s alternative fuel ambitions, which the White House argues would “insulate” the force from price shocks; and the administration’s defense of an afloat forward staging base for the Navy. As you’ll see, the argument for an AFSB is half tactical relevance, half support for shipyards:

The Administration opposes elimination of funding for AFSB.  The $38 million requested in the FY 2013 Budget request is needed for advanced procurement of AFSB, which would meet Combatant Commanders’ requirements for special operations and mine clearance.  Further, AFSB is critical to the health of the shipbuilding industrial base as it is the only auxiliary ship in the Navy’s shipbuilding plan until FY 2016.

For all its detail, the White House’s veto message is not surprising. Republican defense advocates say DoD has borne a disproportionate share of the sacrifice in the early years of Austerity America, and both the authorization and appropriations bills reflect their belief that others must start giving up what they want. The president and his Democratic allies who control the Senate disagree, and so we’re back where we started, with another round of gridlock.