Budgetary ‘Gimmicks’ Prompt White House Threat to Veto Defense Spending Bill

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WASHINGTON — The White House has threatened to veto the defense spending bill for 2016 over provisions in the House version that the administration says are “gimmicks” being used to pay for a several programs, including missile warning satellites, that otherwise would be subject to congressionally imposed federal spending caps.

The White House also objected to proposed funding cuts to certain missile defense programs, a legacy U.S. Air Force weather satellite and the service’s Space Modernization Initiative, which is used to examine next-generation satellite capabilities.

In a June 9 statement of administration policy, the White House said it would veto the defense appropriations bill should the final version contain the provisions in the House-proposed legislation. The statement follows a June 1 letter from Shaun Donovan, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, to Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, criticizing the funding plan.

“We have a number of serious concerns about this legislation, which would underfund these important investments in the base budget and instead rely on budget gimmicks that have been criticized by members of both parties,” Donovan wrote. “By paying for base budget costs using [Overseas Contingency Operations] funds, the [Defense] Subcommittee bill fails to provide the stable, multi-year budget on which defense planning is based.”

Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, refers to ongoing war-on-terrorism activities, primarily in the Middle East and Afghanistan, that are funded outside the normal budgeting process. As such, OCO funds are not subject to the mandatory spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

When the House Appropriations Committee marked up its version of the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2016, lawmakers used $37.5 billion in OCO funding to pay for what the White House refers to as “base requirements.” Among the programs funded with OCO money in the bill the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System, to the tune of $784 million.

Donovan described this as a “deliberate relabeling of non-war costs” to skirt the caps set by the Budget Control Act.

The six-page Statement of Administration Policy that followed Donovan’s letter provided more detail on the White House’s objections to the bill.

Among them is the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed $61 million reduction to the White House’s $278 million request for a redesigned missile defense kill vehicle. The new kill vehicle, conceived following a string of test failures of U.S. territorial shield attributed in part to the current kill vehicle, has been identified as a top priority by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. “This reduction will delay the program beyond the required 2020 timeline to protect the United States,” the White House statement said.

The House bill also would eliminate all funding — the request included about $89 million — for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, whose last satellite is awaiting a launched that the Air Force had tentatively scheduled for 2018. Further, the bill strips out the $120 million the Air Force had requested to launch the satellite, and rescinds $50 million provided for that purpose in 2015.

The Air Force says the satellite is needed to help fill a void in coverage of the Middle East and surrounding regions that will be left by the scheduled retirement of a European satellite in 2017.

“Eliminating this satellite would have broad implications, including reduced accuracy of weather prediction models and degraded efficiency of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms,” the White House statement said. Military weather satellites have traditionally been used to, among other things, determine when areas of interest to photoreconnaissance satellite operators are free of cloud cover.

The White House also objected to the House proposal to trim $191 million from the Pentagon’s $262 million Space Modernization Initiative request. The account is used to study upgrades and alternatives to existing military space capabilities.

“The Department’s 2014 Space Strategic Portfolio review recommended significant changes to our space-based capabilities in the face of dramatically increasing threats,” the statement said. “Failing to invest in SMI technology maturation now will limit these systems to 1995 sensor technology and the associated obsolescence in our next satellite acquisition.”

The bill strips the SMI funding primarily from two programs — SBIRS and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites — that is intended to test whether the Air Force could perform these missions with smaller, less sophisticated craft. The move reflects longstanding differences between Capitol Hill and the Air Force on how to field new capabilities that take advantage of the latest innovations and technology.

The House bill said the SMI funding should be used for evolutionary upgrades to existing systems. The White House said the funding targeted in the bill is needed to “assure that we will not suffer a capability gap in our most important mission areas.”