Fully funded defense appropriations bill getting a late jumpstart

It may be late, but the Defense Department might end up getting its 2017 funding after all. The House is expected to make moves on a nearly $619 billion appropriations bill next week, said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).

The $619 billion topline is in line with the 2017 defense authorization act, which allows Congress to give DoD about $569.5 billion in base budget money and $59.5 billion in emergency war funding.

“There’s always some relatively minor differences on what we fund … but I think the priority is let’s get this appropriation bill done,” Thornberry said. “We really could and should have done it last December, this is largely agreed upon, there’s not really a reason for people on either side of the aisle to oppose it, but it certainly would remove the specter of a [continuing resolution].”

DoD has been operating on 2016 funding since the beginning of fiscal 2017 in October. That froze any new programs from starting and the possibility of increased funding until Congress passed the 2017 appropriations bill.

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Part of the appropriations bill will provide for an increase in end strength for the military services just as the defense authorization act does. The authorization act stops the drawdown of the Army and adds airmen to the Air Force.

There’s still the matter of a defense supplemental budget that the Trump administration is supposed to have ready by the beginning of March.

The 2017 defense appropriations bill funds DoD right up to the amount allowable by the 2015 budget deal, meaning anything higher would trigger sequestration.

President Donald Trump’s supplemental is rumored by defense experts to come in at about $30 billion. Thornberry confirmed he heard the same rumors.

How Congress would fit that request in with the 2017 appropriations is still yet to be determined.

Thornberry said he was open to the option of adding it to the emergency war fund known as overseas contingency operations (OCO), which is not subject to sequestration caps.

Congress and the Obama administration at times used the fund to pay for base budget items like operations and maintenance. Critics say using OCO for that purpose is irresponsible and doesn’t allow the department to plan ahead.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the CDI Straus Military Reform Project, said some inside the defense community think Trump may try to fund part of the wall on the Mexican border with the budget supplemental.

Thornberry admitted using OCO to pay for the supplemental was not a good long-term option. He also said he has “no doubt” there will be an OCO fund going into the future.

“As cumbersome as OCO funding is, it’s better than not getting the money,” Thornberry said.

In the meantime, President Trump requested $603 billion for the defense budget in 2018. That’s a 3 percent increase compared to what President Barack Obama suggested.

Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) are both concerned about Trump’s proposal.

They both support a larger budget of $640 billion to increase readiness.

Thornberry didn’t rule out the possibility of using OCO to get to the $640 billion in 2018.