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At Tacloban airport in the central Philippines, U.S. troops load relief supplies to a U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft for airdrop to typhoon-ravaged remote places in 2013. (AP/Bullit Marquez)
At Tacloban airport in the central Philippines, U.S. troops load relief supplies to a U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey aircraft for airdrop to typhoon-ravaged remote places in 2013. (AP/Bullit Marquez)

As the September 30 budget deadline looms, Congress must decide whether to live within the sequester-level caps for both defense and nondefense spending, reach a sequester relief deal, or shut down the government. Although a short-term continuing resolution will paper over the problem for a few more months, the country needs a real budget deal, with increases for both defense and domestic spending. However, rather than come to the bargaining table for a long-term to lift the unnecessary budget caps, congressional Republicans are once again playing a dangerous game of chicken. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) accuse Democrats of prioritizing domestic programs over the Pentagon’s budget, Republican leadership in Congress is shortchanging U.S. national security.

The Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, budgets—commonly known as war funding—were created to fund emergency needs after 9/11, as well as the swiftly changing requirements of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With just a handful of U.S. troops currently serving in Afghanistan, it is time to wind down the war funding. Instead, Congress is using OCO funding to get around its self-imposed budget caps on defense and nondefense spending by adding money for the Pentagon while cutting funding for infrastructure, education, affordable housing, and environmental protection.

By trying to stuff funding for core defense and foreign policy priorities into the OCO budgets and cutting these programs’ funding in the regular budget, the House and Senate budget process has created the very hostages that the Republican leadership is accusing Democrats risking.

OCO shell games

The Senate bill, for example, slashes $700 million from the U.S. State Department’s base budget for Migration and Refugee Assistance—meeting less than 40 percent of the president’s budget request. Despite a record number of refugees fleeing the current crisis in Syria, Senate appropriators are playing politics with humanitarian assistance funding, shifting the urgently needed $700 million from the regular budget to the OCO budget. In effect, the Senate appropriators are betting the lives of millions of refugees on a sequester relief deal. They take the same risks with international disaster assistance—an invaluable element of American soft power—providing just half of the needed funds in the base budget.

Both the House and Senate play a similarly dangerous game with defense—cutting $14 billion and $36 billion, respectively, from the Pentagon’s regular budget for training, operation, and maintenance. Putting this essential funding into the OCO budget instead of the federal budget jeopardizes the military’s day-to-day activities to make a political point. This hostage taking, controversial even among defense hawks in the Senate, is both dangerously fool-hardly and simply unnecessary. Even the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have criticized this OCO shell game as “managerially unsound and unfairly dispiriting to our force.” Although both Republicans and Democrats are in complete agreement about how much funding defense should get overall, Republican congressional leadership would rather risk underfunding critical national security priorities and play budget games than even talk about a way to reach a budget deal and provide relief from the sequester caps. Speaker Boehner and Sen. McConnell have refused to negotiate, even though House and Senate Democrats and prominent Republicans like House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) have been ready to work out a budget deal for months.

International security programs also get the short end of the stick. The Senate appropriations bill cuts over half a billion dollars from the base budget of the Foreign Military Financing program, which helps U.S. partners and allies purchase U.S. weapons and pay for training to build their security capabilities. The program’s largest beneficiary is Israel, but countries such as the Philippines, Tunisia, Indonesia, and Colombia also rely on it. And despite the increasing number of regional crises around the world, the House and Senate appropriations bills cut roughly half of the base budget funds for peacekeeping operations in fragile countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, and Mali.

Cuts to essential national security programs

Worse still, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are cutting funding outright from essential national security and foreign policy programs in the fiscal year 2016 appropriations.

Nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism

The international risks of nuclear proliferation have been in the spotlight this summer, with intense debate about the merits of the international deal to prevent Iran from obtaining enough nuclear material to build a nuclear weapon. However, both the House and the Senate appropriations bills slash funding for the State Department’s Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining, and Related, or NADR, Programs by one-quarter. These funds include contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency—which is responsible for inspecting Iran’s nuclear sites and supply chain and leads efforts to secure nuclear material—and programs that target weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, terrorism, as well as nuclear smuggling. Congress’ failure to appropriate enough funds towards NADR-funded programs weakens the government’s ability to enforce nuclear nonproliferation at a critical time.

These cuts to the State Department’s NADR programs will also weaken U.S. counterterrorism activities around the world in places such as Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, and Somalia. These counterterrorism programs help countries develop the tools necessary to address terror threats; limit the flows of foreign fighters to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; and eliminate safe havens for terrorists. The Senate bill’s total cut of more than $260 million—and the House bill’s cut of more than $220 million—are just a hair less than NADR’s total nuclear nonproliferation budget.

In addition to cutting international anti-proliferation and counterterrorism programs, the Senate is weakening U.S. homeland security by cutting approximately 10 percent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office’s budget request. With a mission of protecting the United States from the dangers of nuclear and radiological weapons, this office funds research and the purchase of devices that detect radiation in shipping containers or trucks entering U.S. ports and crossing U.S. borders. Without appropriately funding nuclear detection, Congress will weaken the United States’ ability to detect and prevent the smuggling of radioactive materials into the country, including terrorist-made dirty or nuclear bombs.

Economic and development assistance

Economic and development assistance, another major area of American soft power abroad, has also been gutted. Both the House and the Senate bills reduce U.S. contributions to international financial institutions by nearly half compared to last year’s funding. For example, Congress will provide only half of the funding needed for the modest Asian Development Fund—despite the central importance of the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region to U.S. foreign policy, as well as U.S. unease about the prospect of a China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Senate also halves funding for the World Bank’s International Development Association, which funds efforts to spur human and economic development for the 2.8 billion people in the world’s poorest countries—including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation, or MCC—established in 2004 under President George W. Bush—has done tremendous work to improve governance and promote economic growth in developing countries such as Morocco, Mali, and the Philippines. Under the House and Senate appropriations bills, however, the MCC receives less than one-third of the funds requested in the president’s budget. The Senate bill also cuts funding for Gavi—formerly known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization—an effective public-private partnership that reduces childhood deaths and makes vaccines affordable for poor countries.

Climate change

The House and Senate also hamstring U.S. efforts to address the international consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels and more intense and destructive storms. Neither chamber funds a single dollar toward the Green Climate Fund, designed to help poorer countries achieve sustainable economic growth and better cope with the impacts of climate change. With the climate-related food insecurity and population displacement already happening in vulnerable regions of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, resulting in avoidable human suffering and creating a fertile breeding ground for instability and extremism—such as in Syria—this is a short-sighted response to the long-term challenges of climate change.


Republican leaders’ chest thumping and cries for increased defense spending are not only misleading, but also come at a significant price. In their refusal to negotiate a budget deal that would lift the sequester-level spending caps, Congress is unnecessarily risking critical defense and foreign policy priorities. Congress should negotiate a real budget deal, give up the budget smoke and mirrors, and stop shortchanging U.S. national security.

Katherine Blakeley is a Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Max Andonov is a former intern with the National Security and International Policy team.

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Katherine Blakeley

Policy Analyst

Max Andonov