Visclosky Opening Statement Delivered During the House Consideration of the Fiscal Year 2017 Defense Appropriations Act
Washington, DC – Below is the opening statement of Congressman Pete Visclosky, Ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered during the House consideration of H.R. 5293, the Fiscal Year 2017 Defense Appropriations Act.
Mr. Chairman, I yield myself as much time as I may consume and ask unanimous consent that my full remarks be entered into the record.
I would like to begin by conveying my deep appreciation for Chairman Frelinghuysen’s steady leadership of the Defense Subcommittee. His commitment to this Subcommittee’s tradition of cooperative bipartisanship is unwavering and it is a pleasure working with him.
I also would like to express my gratitude to Chairman Rogers, Ranking Member Lowey, and the other Members of the Subcommittee for their efforts.
Additionally, this bill could not have been written without the dedication, long hours, and discerning and thoughtful input of our committee staff and personal staffs. I want to thank Rob Blair, Sherry Young, Walter Hearne, BG Wright, Brooke Boyer, Adrienne Ramsay, Allison Deters, Megan Milam, Colin Lee, Cornell Teague, Matthew Bower, Rebecca Leggieri, Chris Bigelow, Steve Wilson, Joe DeVooght, and Luke Wood.
The Chairman has well and clearly articulated the major elements of the bill and report. Under less than ideal circumstances and unsettled conditions, he and the Subcommittee staff have again demonstrated their talent and acumen in putting together this legislation. There are many highlights to the bill. However, I will use my time during general debate to discuss the circumstances and conditions that led to the proposal to use nearly 27 percent of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) accounts to fund base Department of Defense programs, which gives me pause as an Appropriator.
It was as an Appropriator that I opposed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) and its arbitrary spending caps that only address one-sixth of the federal budget equation. In each session of Congress we should be making discrete decisions on how we annually invest our discretionary dollars. Setting inflexible spending targets for 10 years is nonsensical. I believe we need to invest more in our roads, ports, drinking water infrastructure, universities, and our defense. We need to generate more resources, and we need to have a fulsome discussion of our entitlement programs. My assumption is that there are very few people in Congress who believe that the federal government is currently making enough of a long-term investment in our nation and its interests.
And it was as an Appropriator, that I voted for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA), which mitigated the BCA caps on base discretionary funding and capped OCO spending for Fiscal Years (FY) 2016 and 2017. I obviously would have rather seen the complete repeal of the BCA, but nonetheless, I supported the BBA, because it provided some clarity to the Appropriations process for the balance of the 114th Congress. As such, we were able to wrap up the FY 2016 process and, with a number for FY 2017, I was guardedly optimistic that the House would have predictability this year.
The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee was far along in its FY 2017 process, when the OCO to Base strategy – conceived to placate some on other Committees – was settled upon as the strategy for the House Majority. While this bill technically does not violate the caps established by the BBA for base defense programs and OCO, it is hard to argue that this bill was assembled under what passes for normalcy in this Congress. And there is no doubt that the Chairman and Subcommittee staff made smart investment decisions in executing the $15.7 billion in OCO to Base funding strategy. However, I am troubled with the circumstances that compelled the Subcommittee’s action.
First and foremost, the fiscal year begins on October 1, 2016, not May 1, 2017, and it is the responsibility of those of us holding office in the 2nd session of the 114th Congress to execute the FY 2017 appropriations process. In order to make OCO funding available for base programs, our bill only provides enough funding to fully support the warfighter until the end of April 2017, which is five months before the end of the fiscal year. This is intended to force the next administration and the next Congress to pass a supplemental in calendar year 2017 to support ongoing combat operations.
It is not the responsibility of the 115th Congress to finish a predetermined fraction of our work, and we should not be dismissive of the difficulties we created. To assume there will be smooth sailing for a supplemental appropriations bill in the spring is problematic. We do not know who will be in the White House, who will be the civilian leadership at DoD, nor the composition of the next Congress. And as we can clearly see from the Zika Virus debate, and before that Hurricane Sandy, supplemental appropriations bills are not without controversy.
Additionally, in making the $15.7 billion in cuts to the OCO budget request, the Committee had to make some assumptions on the pace of combat operations between now and May 2017. While Chairman Frelinghuysen exercised care and caution, there is not much wiggle room in the interim. If the OCO spend rate were to increase for any reason, Congress and a new Administration would have to act quickly to pass a supplemental early in 2017. If that supplemental were not timely, the Department would likely be forced to reprogram or transfer base dollars to OCO, which shortchanges other priorities, negates the Committee’s funding levels, and still requires a supplemental to backfill both base and OCO while not violating the BCA caps. Will said supplemental be funded by offsets from resources within the other 11 Appropriations bills?
Adding to the uncertainty, the House Majority is going it alone with this strategy. To date, it has been rejected by the Administration, the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the full Senate. While those three are not infallible, I fear that if the House Majority insists upon heading down this path, we are looking at an impossible conference process.
Putting concerns over uncertainty aside, I further believe the OCO to Base strategy abdicates our discretion to the Department of Defense in executing the remaining OCO funding. In order to free up $15.7 billion, certain appropriations in OCO were subject to reductions. These reductions were done at the account level, not at the program level. For example, Navy O&M in the OCO Title was reduced by $2.9 billion, from its requested level of $6.8 billion. The Department has discretion on how it will apply that $2.9 billion reduction across the tens of programs under that account.
A final concern I have, and one expressed in prior years, is that we should eliminate the reliance on OCO funding in the first instance and shift activities to the base budget. It is increasingly difficult after fifteen years of war to argue that this operational tempo for our military is a contingency and not the new normal in defending our nation and our interests. This Subcommittee had correctly begun to limit what is an eligible expense in OCO, but under the BBA and this latest proposal we would take a step back. For example, this bill proposes to increase end strength by 52,000 above planned reductions for the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force. And I agree that we need more personnel, but this additional force structure costs $3 billion in FY 2017 and is paid for with OCO to Base dollars. But, we defer the tough decisions. This is particularly true when recognizing the fact that BCA caps are scheduled to lower defense spending by $2 billion in FY 2018. An increase in end strength creates a tail of spending in future years. The DoD estimates that the troop levels funded in the bill will increase spending by $30 billion over five years. That is $30 billion that is not budgeted for, but $30 billion that our Committee will be expected to pay for.
In closing, I have taken some time describing my concerns with the circumstances that impact less than three percent of the total bill. But the manufactured uncertainty introduced by these circumstances diminishes the likelihood that this Committee and the Congress will complete its work. It is a mark of the talent of Chairman Frelinghuysen and our staff, their commitment to our troops and our nation’s defense, and their seriousness of purpose, that they have done so much good to ameliorate the problems caused by this approach. I look forward to working with Chairman Frelinghuysen and the members of the House to advance the process and complete the task before us.
I look forward to the debate on amendments.
Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.