Over 18 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith had never voted against the bill that funds the Defense Department – until Friday.
Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, broke his streak when he a cast a vote against a $612 billion defense budget that he said is short-sighted and "extremely damaging" to national security.
The 2016 budget passed by an overall vote of 269-151 despite a threat from President Barack Obama that he’d veto the bill. It’s usually a bipartisan bill, but Republicans and Democrats are at odds over how they should fund national security.
Democrats want to repeal the federal spending caps known as sequestration, which would slice funding from a number of federal agencies. Republicans want to leave most of the cuts in place while steering extra money to the Pentagon through a special account that’s intended to be used for war funding.
"I agree that we ought to find a better way to find fiscal discipline without the arbitrary caps ... but this bill can't do that," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said on the House floor. "If this bill fails, how does that get us closer to fixing our budget problems?"
The bill contains the first steps to reforming the military retirement system and a 2.3 percent pay raise for troops. It gives the Pentagon two years to create a 401(k) style retirement program aside from the all-or-nothing pension military service members earn now if they spend 20 years in the Armed Forces.
The spending plan also has some perquisites for the Puget Sound region, including $5.4 billion for Air Force and Navy jets that Boeing manufactures here. It steers about $50 million to work at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and $25 million for traffic improvements on Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord that Democratic Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia attached to the budget.
Smith of Bellevue doesn’t have a problem with those projects or potential changes to military pay and benefits. His opposition – and Obama’s – centers on the manner Republicans chose to direct extra money to the Pentagon.
Smith wanted Congress to lift the federal spending caps known as sequestration, which would cut about $40 billion from the 2016 Pentagon budget.
The caps have been place since Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which included about $1 trillion in overall federal spending cuts over a 10-year period. Lawmakers passed a short-term fix in 2013 that delayed the sequester’s impact, but the caps remain on the table after this year.
Instead of Smith’s preference for a bill that would repeal sequestration, the Republican House gave the Defense Department an additional $40 billion through the so-called overseas contingency operations fund.
Using the war fund gets the Pentagon the money it says it needs today, but it compels military leaders to plan as if they won’t have that money in following years.
"This is unfair and unnecessary and we should be working to fix the problem, not working to get around it," said Smith, who has been a member of the House Armed Services Committee since 1997.
If sequestration is not repealed, military leaders say the Army could shed as many as 70,000 active-duty soldiers by 2020. That kind of drawdown would have significant impacts at JBLM, where 27,000 active-duty soldiers are stationed.
Smith’s colleagues in the South Sound’s congressional delegation voted for the bill. Heck and fellow Democrat Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor issued statements saying they, too, want a permanent repeal of sequestration spending caps but supported the bill because it met immediate national security needs.