Running Down the Checklist: The Defense Authorization

Before debating a potential "CRomnibus" bill to fund the government, lawmakers are ready to check one item off their lame-duck to-do list: a defense authorization for FY 2015. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees agreed to a bill that addresses a number of issues involving military operations overseas and military compensation, among other items.

On the first issue, the authorization sets war spending -- mostly intended for combat related activities in Iraq and Afghanistan -- at $63.7 billion, the level requested by the Administration. It encouragingly scales back a $4 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, which is only tangentially related to combat spending, to $1.3 billion. However, it also shifts $350 million of funding previously designated for Iron Dome, an Israeli missile defense system that is clearly not directly related to Afghanistan and Iraq war spending, to the war category. Note that since this is just an authorization, these funding decisions are not final and will be made in the Defense appropriations bill. The soundness of the decisions they made is mixed: encouraging on the funding levels but less so on the gimmickry with Iron Dome. It would be better if the authorization had gone further and outlined criteria for what could qualify for the war designation.

In terms of military compensation, we highlighted last month two decisions that lawmakers were considering on TRICARE drug co-pays and the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). In both cases, the authorization does make changes but only partway to what the Defense Department suggested. The bill raises co-pays by $3 for generic and brand-name retail drugs and for brand-name and non-formulary mail-order drugs. Generally, these increases are much lower than the ones the Pentagon included, saving $2.4 billion over ten years. The only area where lawmakers exceeded requests is in generic retail drugs -- the Pentagon had a $1 per year increase over the next nine years starting in 2016. Regarding housing changes, the authorization would reduce the BAH by 1 percent of housing costs (to 99 percent); that is, one-fifth the size of the 5 percent decrease the Pentagon suggested.

TRICARE Co-Pays: Defense Request vs. Authorization
  2014 2015 2024
Generic Retail Drugs
Request $5 $5 $14
Authorization $5 $8 N/A
Brand-Name Retail Drugs
Request $17 $26 $45
Authorization $17 $20 N/A
Brand-Name Mail-Order Drugs
Request $13 $26 $45
Authorization $13 $16 N/A
Non-Formulary Mail-Order Drugs
Request $43 $51 $90
Authorization $43 $46 N/A

Source: Defense Department, House Rules Committee

In short, the defense authorization is a mixed bag. It provides generally good guidance on war spending, although it still shifts some non-war defense items into that category. And while it does not entirely reject the Pentagon's proposed military compensation changes, it does not go nearly as far as the DoD requested as necessary to maintain a strong enough military force. The upcoming appropriations decisions will shed more light on how responsible lawmakers will be with defense spending.