CAPITOL HILL: Syria and sequestration dominated today’s Senate Appropriations Committee’s mark-up of the $594 billion defense spending bill for fiscal year 2014, but there was little actual progress on either.
Appropriators are historically the most hard-nosed legislators; they’re the committees that have to match congressional rhetoric with actual money. But today, the appropriators approved a defense bill that is $19 billion above the cap imposed by Congress’ very own 2011 Budget Control Act. Unless the BCA is repealed or amended — and that is not likely to happen for months, if not years — then the bill will not only automatically reduce funding by $19 billion, but it will do so through the much-denounced “mindless” mechanic of sequestration, which automatically shaves an equal amount off every spending account (with a few exemptions and exceptions, probably including military pay).
[Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) proposed several alternative sets of cuts, but SCMR measures take time to yield their full savings, so even the most draconian option, Hagel said yesterday, is still "$30 billion to $35 billion" short of the sequester mandate for 2014.]
A spending bill whose total actually fit under the sequester cap would avoid the automatic across-the-board slice, but that would require conscious choosing of winners and losers that neither the president’s 2014 budget nor either chamber of Congress has been willing to take on.
Some of the cardinals understood that. “By refusing to reorder priorities and make tough choices consistent with the budget caps, this committee is calling for a new across-the-board sequestration that would be even more damaging,” lamented SAC’s senior Republican, Richard Shelby. “While I appreciate as always the chairman’s willingness to work with us on the details of this bill, I’ll have to oppose this legislation because of the topline.”
It’s out of our hands, appropriators chair Barbara Mikulski said in her opening statement. “We need a topline, we’ve all said that, so we can get to a bottom line… but remember the topline is done by the Budget Committee.” The Senate and House budgeteers both solved sequestration in their bills, but in entirely incompatible ways, and the process of conference to resolve their differences is currently on hold.
“We’re stuck,” said the always sharp-tounged Sen. Lindsey Graham. “We screwed ourselves here, and somebody in this body on the Republican and Democrat sides need to find a way to work with our president to undo this [sequestration] for the long-term interests of the country.” But even Graham, ready as he may be to do something, didn’t have a concrete suggestion as to just what do.
On Syria, the distance between committee actions and grim realities was even greater. The appropriators included an amendment by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall to limit US involvement there — except it really didn’t limit anything at all. Udall’s amendment simply states that “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used with respect to Syria in contravention of the War Powers Resolution….” In other words, it simply reiterates the War Powers Act, which every administration since Nixon has called unconstitutional (with some cause) and, except for formalities, ignored.
For many members of Congress, however, reasserting the War Powers Act is a way of trying to reassert their own constitutional relevance in foreign policy — without going through the far more painful process of actually voting to restrict any particular act by the president.
“We are in a position with Syria where the steps that we are taking could very well have us in a war soon,” said Udall. “We are not following our responsibilities if we don’t stand up and have a serious debate about this…. To turn it all over the executive is completely emasculating, completely emasculating our responsibility under the constitution.”
“We do need to exercise our constitutional role,” said Democrat Chris Coons. He personally favors a “more muscular” policy towards Syria, he said, but Congress also needs to take a muscular approach to asserting its foreign policy powers.
“I want Congress more involved” in decisions on war and peace, Sen. Graham countered. “The world’s blowing up.” But, he argued, the various requirements and restrictions the War Powers Act attempts to impose on the President are no substitute for Congress actually debating and voting on specific issues . To wave the War Powers flag just as the president is finally sending arms to the Syrian rebels, he argued, does nothing but signal irresolution.
“We should have had this debate six months ago,” said Graham. “If this war goes on six months longer, the King of Jordan is gone.”
Updated 3:20 pm with details from Sec. Hagel’s SCMR review.