Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Breaking Defense
9 June 2015
WASHINGTON – Two powerful committees are headed for a rare House floor fight over a controversial fund to build new nuclear missile submarines.
Rep. Randy Forbes and Rep. Joe Courtney, the chairman and top Democrat of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, are preparing to introduce an amendment to the defense appropriations bill to protect the National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund. The HASC created it to cover the extraordinary cost of replacing the Ohio-class sub – $80 billion to $92 billion depending on the estimate – but which the appropriators consider a fiscal gimmick. While the appropriations bill doesn’t dissolve the fund, it does forbid moving any money into it, rendering it a empty and useless shell.
We understand the appropriators and authorizers (HAC-D and HASC) tried to negotiate a deal. The talks fell apart and we are left with the coming floor fight. They were “trying to talk through any policy differences that we have, to try to resolve those without doing it on the floor,” Forbes told me this afternoon. “So far we haven’t seen that coming to fruition.”
HASC’s full committee chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, hasn’t given up hope yet. “Working with the appropriators, we’ll have to sort through these issues,” he told reporters on the Hill today. “I think a lot of folks, and I would put me in this camp, are concerned that the Ohio-class replacement is going to be so expensive that unless it has some kind of a separate sort of fund, it will crowd out all the other shipbuilding in the Navy ... That is why we put that separate fund in there the last two years, but we’ll have to work with them to see how the outcome is.”
The fiery Forbes, however, is already rallying co-sponsors for an amendment. “You’ll find not only cross-party support, I think you’ll find cross-committee support,” he told me. Besides Rep. Courtney, other confirmed supporters are readiness subcommittee chairman Rep. Robb Wittman, strategic forces chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, and Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin, a senior member of both the HASC and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“We’ve had over 350 members already vote for this,” Forbes said. “I hope that not all of them have changed their mind in the last couple of weeks.”
What are those previous votes that make Forbes feel confident? There’s a string of them.
Last year, Congress created a National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund to pay for the new missile subs outside the regular Navy budget – but they didn’t put any money into it. This year, the House Armed Services Committee proposed moving $1.39 billion of Ohio Replacement Program research funding out of an R&D account into the fund and expanded the Pentagon’s authority to move other monies into it.
When HASC’s draft National Defense Authorization Act came to the floor, Ohio Democrat Earl Blumenauer introduced an amendment to remove the Deterrent Fund provisions. It went down in bipartisan flames, 375 votes to 43. The House then passed the NDAA with the $1.39 billion and the new authorities intact.
But skeptics from Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall on down consider the fund a fiscal shell game, reshuffling money from one account to another without actually solving the problem of where to get the money from in the first place. Those skeptics apparently included a majority of appropriators. In their defense bill, they declared that “None of the funds provided in this or any other Act may be transferred to the National Sea Based Deterrent Fund.”
That bill is likely to hit the floor Thursday, and Forbes will propose an amendment striking this “None of the funds...” provision.
On one level, this is a classic conflict of authorizers versus appropriators. That makes it an uphill battle for HASC. The Constitution states “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” That means, in the event of a conflict between the National Defense Authorization Act and the defense appropriations bill, the appropriations language prevails. That’s why Forbes has to amend the appropriations act.
“This is such an important once-in-a-generation kind of acquisition ... we’d better start saving for it now,” Forbes told me. (Arguably it’s even rarer than once in a generation, since the Ohio subs entered service in 1981). The National Sea-Based Deterrent Fund is like a Christmas savings account, he said: “I’m not going to wait for the night before Christmas to put in the money.”