Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle spoke with National Review’s Kevin Williamson Tuesday about the mystifying and sometimes maddening process of trying to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without pouring cash into every congressman’s pet project. The sobering bottom line: The Defense Department starts running out of money in June.
NRO: Looking over the reports on the supplemental war-funding bill, I see unemployment benefits, Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, the Mississippi coastline — what does this have to do with fighting two wars?
Nussle: That’s our question! The president was very clear, from the very beginning. That’s the reason why the president came out right away when this process kicked off about a month ago in the Congress, and when we first submitted our supplemental 15 months ago, and he said “This needs to be about the troops. We don’t want to tie the hands of commanders in the field. Remember that you’ve lost those votes in the past. And we don’t want to hold troops hostage to excess domestic spending.” He was very clear. At least in the House they understood that the president is serious. The Democrats came in with discretionary spending at the president’s number. The Senate is starting at plus-10 billion dollars, and who knows how far it will go up from? Further spending likely will come in the form of all sorts of amendments on the floor in the next 48 hours. There was some of that in the committee process that started this ball rolling, but now that all 100 senators have a chance, you’ll see more amendments.
NRO: What happens if the bill doesn’t get done by Memorial Day?
Nussle: That’s the challenge. As Secretary Gates testified this morning, it makes the Department of Defense go through a shell game. They move around money. They’re already using fourth-quarter dollars from the base budget — the basic Defense Department budget — and taking away from the muscle and bone of the military. Those funds will have to be replenished. Every minute that starts ticking off from a reprogramming like that is time wasted. It’s a shell game and a terrible way to manage, especially when Congress has known that this day of reckoning, for paying for our troops, was coming. It’s been on the calendar for a while.
NRO: And what happens if they is no bill, or a bill that the president vetoes?
Nussle: The first thing that happens is that they look at two accounts. The first one is the military personnel accounts, and that runs out in mid-June. The operations and maintenance accounts run dry after that. They start shifting money around. The well does not go completely dry until around the Fourth of July, heaven forbid we get to that point. The Defense Department already sent a letter up indicating that they’ll have to notify their civilian workforce of a furlough, maybe as early as mid-June or toward the end of June. Congress and the Defense Department have been down this road. Congress hasn’t learned that they can avoid this by passing it now and passing it clean.
NRO: How did tax increases end up in this mess?