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Former Hill Staffers Explain Ins and Outs of Crafting Annual U.S. Defense Bill

U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo

U.S. Capitol on July 31, 2015, NASA Photo

Unlike Russia and China, the United States needs “to be in three places at once”—a rationale that lies behind some of the thinking on Capitol Hill that goes into building the thousand-page U.S. defense bill each year.

Three former armed services committee staffers from the House and Senate explained to an audience Thursday at the Heritage Foundation the process that goes into building the authorization bill.

Roger Zakheim, former deputy staff director on the House panel, added at the Washington, D.C., think-tank event that the impact of the Budget Control Act has been felt far sooner than expected as adversaries see the United States spending less on readiness and modernization of its forces to cover the high operating tempo costs its armed forces have been experiencing for the last 15 years.

Acknowledging the president’s request of “$600 billion is a shocking amount of money,” he cautioned, it doesn’t go far enough. “We just need to rebuild” in all sectors and look at pruning away dead leaves and branches. “Reform to me is only a measure of growth.”

Reform—from acquisition to the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and what regional combatant commands are still needed—have been the subject of a number of hearings since the fall by both committees.

John Bonsell, a former minority staff director on the Senate committee, said there most likely will be another continuing resolution passed to keep the government fiscally afloat after 1 October rather than an appropriations bill. “That’s very unfortunate,” the retired career Army officer said, because the resolution keeps spending at previous year’s levels and does not allow new programs to begin. “We’re in a readiness crisis.”

“I know what a hollow Army looks like.” Even now, “nobody’s outraged” when parts are being cannibalized from museums to keep aircraft flying, and China and Russia modernize their forces and expand their reach regionally.

Zakheim added that when the Budget Control Act passed “nobody cared” about what it meant to the Pentagon and readiness. “There is no advocate for the active force outside of the secretary of Defense.”

“The smaller the force the more it’s going to be stretched,” said Justin Johnson, who left the congressional staff for Heritage.

“The House has been trying to get a budget,” Johnson said, but whether it will is up in the air. The Senate adopted the agreement reached in last year’s budget accord lifting some of the Budget Control Act’s spending caps and eliminating for a time the automatic across-the-board spending cuts it calls for.

Zakheim called the Freedom Caucus’s fight to cut $20 billion out of the $1 trillion dollar request and not allow the defense bill and others to go forward “crazy” and “borderline reckless” to incrementally pay for the immediate war against the Islamic State. The Freedom Caucus, which does not publicize its numbers, comprises the most conservative Republican members of Congress.

When John Boehner resigned as speaker of the House and Paul Ryan was voted into that position, Johnson said the Republicans missed an opportunity to unite budget and fiscal hawks by moving past the regular order of passing legislation to lay out a plan that cut entitlements and discretionary spending in departments other than defense and raise the Pentagon budget.

In looking at the 11-week or so process from the time the administration’s request is sent to Congress, hearings held and both houses pass their version of the bill, Zakheim said, “The overwhelming majority [of what goes into the authorization bill] comes from the Department of Defense” on what should be spent where and policies it needs. He estimated about 40 percent came from the committee and subcommittee chairmen, staffs and outside interests.

Johnson said items get added to the bill in some cases because of the “deep personal interest” or a member, say on missile defense or preventing sexual assault. He added that the committee also “regularly get requests from parts of the Pentagon” to put programs back into the authorization bill that the Office of Management and Budget wanted delayed or killed.

The House and Senate panels approaching “mark-up,” the process of what actually gets written into the future law, differently.

Bonsell said, “I’m a proponent of the closed process” used in the Senate. “It’s not reality TV” and members feel “open to say what they want” as they come and go from these subcommittee and later full committee sessions.

In the House, which opened its “mark-up” sessions when the Republicans took control following the 1994 elections, Zakheim said, “Most of it is not partisan” when members disagree. “Oftentimes it’s a regional issue.” He added, “It’s democracy at work.”

The “most interesting place [during this time] is in the anteroom”—where the members can hash out their disagreements, Johnson said.

“A budget at the end of the day is a vision,” Zakheim said.