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Budget Relief Should Go Equally to Defense and Non-Defense

The House reportedly may soon consider a bill to fund the Defense Department for the rest of fiscal year 2017, and it may be because the Republican majority wants to give defense some relief from the sequestration budget cuts without doing the same for non-defense programs.

But defense is just one of 11 bills needed to fund the government in 2017 that remain unfinished, and Congress should quickly finalize all 11. And if Congress is considering whether to provide relief from sequestration, lawmakers should provide that relief for both defense and non-defense programs — as all past sequestration relief measures have done.

The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) set annual caps on defense and non-defense appropriations and created an automatic spending-cut process called “sequestration” that lowers those caps further. Since then, three bipartisan agreements have reduced the sequestration cuts, one or two years at a time, giving equal relief to defense and non-defense.

The 2017 defense bill that the House passed last year would have given defense $16 billion in additional sequestration relief (as we discussed here) by adding $16 billion to core defense funding but providing it under the rubric of “overseas contingency operations” — a category exempt from the BCA caps that’s intended to pay for operations in overseas trouble spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. President Obama expressed strong opposition to this maneuver but, with President Trump in office, Republican congressional leaders may pursue it again.

The BCA caps are tight on both sides of the budget. In fact, for 2017 they’re a little tighter for non-defense, as the defense cap is $3 billion above the 2016 level while the non-defense cap is at the 2016 level. Also, the need to add funding in some high-priority non-defense areas is tightening the squeeze on other things.

For example, Congress has already enacted a $2.9 billion increase for veterans’ programs, which are situated in the non-defense category. Preparing for the 2020 census will also require added funding, as will continuing housing assistance for low-income families as rents rise. And President Trump’s stated desire to build a wall on the Mexican border — also considered a non-defense cost — would add to those pressures.

If Congress provides sequestration relief for 2017, it should address non-defense as well as defense needs as it consistently has in the past.