Budget agreement taps brakes on military downsizing, funds 2.1 percent pay raise

The tentative budget agreement lawmakers reached over the weekend was welcome news at the Pentagon, where senior leaders had become so worried about the prospect of a full-year continuing resolution that some had come to the point of imploring Congress to just pass a bill — any bill — regardless of the top-line amount, in order to stave off several drastic cuts to flying and training hours, military moves and troop bonus payments.

Besides proportioning DoD’s appropriations into roughly the same accounts officials had asked for, the plan includes a 2.1 percent pay raise for both military members and civilians. On the military side, the raise is in line with the inflation-indexed cost-of-living increases troops are generally supposed to get, and above the 1.6 percent the Obama administration requested when it proposed the 2017 budget more than a year ago.

Interestingly though, on the civilian side, appropriators are telling the department that they want employees to receive the raise, even though the bill doesn’t explicitly include any money to fund it. That’s because, in part, the civilian hiring freeze enacted at the start of the Trump administration helped to pay for it. Lawmakers said the freeze had left enough money in DoD’s operating and maintenance accounts to fully fund the raise for civilian workers, at least for the remainder of 2017.

The budget would also pay for some plus-ups in the overall size of the military. Most notably, it would stop the previously-planned drawdown of the Army and Marine Corps.

The Army had been scheduled to shrink to 460,000 active-duty soldiers on the way to an eventual size of 450,000, but the budget holds the line at an active-duty force of 475,000 and adds funding to grow by 1,000 additional soldiers. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, would get 1,000 more service members compared to 2016 numbers, for a total end strength of 185,000.

The agreement also funds a modest plus-up of 285 airmen, but cuts 5,300 sailors. All told, the pluses and minuses tally up to an active-duty military that’s larger than the Obama administration’s request by 24,000 service members, but still 3,000 smaller than it was in 2016.

The bill contained few other surprises, mostly reflecting the fact that both the House and Senate had finished their work on at least the Defense appropriations bills several months ago. The total top-line for Defense — $593 billion — represented a middle ground between the $640 billion in appropriations the House proposed and the Senate’s $578 billion figure. In the end, it’s $10 billion more than the Obama administration first requested when it submitted its 2017 budget 15 months ago, but well below the $30 billion in supplemental spending the Trump administration sought as part of the new president’s pledge to “rebuild” the military.

DoD Reporter Jared Serbu discusses his notebook on Federal Drive with Tom Temin

The final figure also fell short of what the congressional armed services committees sought in their plans for the year, which authorized $619 billion for DoD.

“This agreement makes a down payment on restoring our military,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “We still have a long way to go to get our military in shape to meet the threats we face, and the importance of adequate funding in fiscal year 2018 grows by the day.”

Both bills fell within the $551 billion allowed by the Budget Control Act, but only because those versions and the final agreement used tens of billions in DoD’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to fund some of the Pentagon’s ongoing expenses.

OCO spending is exempt from the caps, and consequently has become an attractive option for both the Pentagon and Congress as they seek to fund Defense needs without triggering sequestration. In the final agreement, OCO accounts for $77 billion of the total spending plan. That’s the same amount DoD spent on OCO in 2013, when the military still had more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan (there are fewer than 10,000 now).

Within the total amount, appropriators told DoD that they wanted the military to prioritize readiness — as if Defense leaders needed to hear that message. Defense Secretary James Mattis has already repeatedly proclaimed it is his highest priority.

However, $14.7 billion in the final agreement is tagged specifically for rebuilding long-term and short-term readiness. The funds are split across DoD’s accounts, including $131 million to pay for plus-ups in personnel, $7.7 billion for operations and maintenance and $5.5 billion in procurement to replace damaged equipment and fund unforeseen priorities and $1.6 billion to counter ISIS.

Lawmakers also placed restrictions on the largest chunk of the readiness fund, the one for operation and maintenance, saying it could only be used for “increased training, depot maintenance, and base operations support” and not recruiting, advertising or marketing programs.

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