On Monday we explained how the many issues raised by the Continuing Resolution (CR), including the across-the-board nominal increase of 0.61 percent, haven’t changed the remarkably consistent structure of our defense spending debate. That budget is going down, and the issue at stake really is the process.
International affairs (fn 150) also is part of the Continuing Resolution, and it too fits into a structured spending debate – but that structure is a good bit less specific.
Let’s start with the commonalities. Public finances are tight, and that exerts immediate pressure throughout the discretionary budget. The President requested an international affairs increase but was denied by appropriators in the House as well as the Senate. Adding 0.61 percent to the international affairs budget in the CR – a nominal increase but real cut – probably doesn’t change that storyline. That is especially true when taking into account the other commonality with defense. Overseas contingency operations are winding down alongside the fiscal pinch, narrowing that part of the budget and providing less space for spending outside the caps.
Now the big difference: national defense currently is capped specifically, while international affairs is part of a cap that includes the other discretionary functions of government. Statutorily, any of those accounts can increase so long as they collectively fit under the cap.
This grouping has been no more stable than the overall international affairs budget process, and it could change again. Until January of this year international affairs was part of a security cap, putting it into a difficult position of being subject to trade-offs with national defense. Transitioning into the non-defense category changed that trade-off logic, but the administration has proposed returning to the earlier security cap instead of acknowledging this switch.
For the time being, though, the statute is clear and it puts international affairs inside the non-defense cap. Unlike national defense, fitting international affairs in the FY13 cap would not force a cut. Hence the looser structure – reducing international affairs would require Congress to be proactive but, because national defense is already above its cap, it will be trimmed even with no further action from Congress.
Of course when it comes to international affairs spending, this Congress hasn’t had a problem being proactive.