Does a Defense Bill Veto Matter?

October 9, 2015

On Wednesday, the Senate passed the defense bill, a few days after the House. Now it’s gone to the White House for signature.

But President Obama has said he will veto it next week. He is concerned Congress skirted statutory budget caps by adding (a much needed) $38 billion in a supplemental wartime account exempt from budget caps.

Why does the White House see that as a problem?  For one thing, the Pentagon needs funding in the baseline defense budget to make longer-term plans and commitments. A one-year supplement does not make that easy.

But the bigger political issue is that the president and many in Congress think the arbitrary budget cap is too low for non-defense programs, too. If the Pentagon is to get needed relief, they believe non-defense programs should as well.

The message of a veto is that the full funding should be in the basic defense budget, and the non-defense spending caps should be raised at the same time.

On Oct. 1, MOAA President Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, USN (Ret.) wrote the president urging against a veto. “As much as we disagree with some of the provisions,” Ryan said, “the fact is that we are still a nation at war, and this legislation is vital to fulfilling wartime requirements.”

Some concerned MOAA members have already asked, “Why not support the veto and try to get fixes to some of the things we don’t like?”

The reality is that a veto will not reopen any of the things MOAA is concerned about in the bill.

Those fights have been fought in the Armed Services committees, with compromises – sometimes grudgingly – reached in the interest of getting a bill passed. There is zero possibility of any of those things being renegotiated in a Hill environment that is focused almost exclusively on budget issues.

If the president vetoes the defense bill, the only thing that has any chance at all of being reworked is the portion of the budget that’s carried in the regular budget vs the supplemental piece. But the issue of how those changes are paid for is exactly what has Congress tied up in knots.

The worst-case veto scenario is a frustrated Congress could just eliminate the supplemental account, and pass a defense bill with $38 billion less funding.

Alternatively, the defense bill would go back into the roiling pot with the other major budget issues – raising the debt ceiling, figuring out the entire government budget, and funding it through a continuing resolution or some other measure.

MOAA is already concerned that negotiations on these political hot potatoes may still lead to a federal shutdown.

We do not want to risk losing the defense bill as well by kicking it back to what will be an even more severely divided congress due to current uncertainty in leadership.

To MOAA, the best option is to sign the defense bill with the $38 billion in contingency money now, keep the White House and Congress focused on negotiations on the already huge challenges for the remaining legislative year, and push our remaining legislative agenda in 2016.

Act now to send President Obama a MOAA-suggested message asking him not to veto the defense bill.