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Capitol Hill Spotlight on Pentagon Budget, Leadership

WHO: Lt. General, David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), School of International Service distinguished practitioner in residence

Dr. Nora Bensahel, School of International Service distinguished scholar in residence

WHAT: Defense budget, secretary of defense confirmation hearing

WHEN: February 2-6

WHERE: American University, telephone, and in-studio

Contact: To arrange an interview please contact J. Paul Johnson at 202-885-5943 or via e-mail at

BACKGROUND: Today, President Obama is releasing his proposed defense budget for 2016, which exceeds the sequestration cap by $35 billion –setting up a potential showdown with Congress. On Wednesday, Ashton Carter will face the Senate for his confirmation hearings as Secretary of Defense – which will require him to defend the new budget and contentious aspects of the administration’s foreign policy.

American University School of International Service experts David Barno and Nora Bensahel are available to discuss both the defense budget and Ashton Carter’s confirmation hearing.  

FY 2016 Defense Budget
Lt. General, David W. Barno, USA (Ret.), had the following thoughts on the defense budget:

•  “This budget comes in well over the sequestration caps -- almost $35 billion, and thus sets up a major budgetary showdown. Do the deficit hawks in Congress hold the line with the 2011 Budget Control Act sequestration caps, and hold defense just under $500 billion? Or do world crises in places like Iraq, Syria, Ukraine cause fiscal priorities to shift and edge the Hill toward a deal that allows more defense spending to hedge against growing global threats?”

Dr. Nora Bensahel on why the final defense budget will be far lower than this request:

•  “The president’s defense budget request exceeds the budget caps in current law. According to the 2011 Budget Control Act, the base defense budget in Fiscal Year 2016 must be no more than approximately $499 billion. This request is $35 billion greater than the caps allow. Unless Congress changes the law, the DoD budget will have to conform. Despite, many members of the House and Senate supporting a change in the law, especially given recent crises with ISIS, Russia, Iran, and others, there will still be almost no chance that Congress would vote for an increase. The structure of the Budget Control Act means that Congress cannot increase defense spending without revising the budget caps on the domestic budget – and there is no consensus at all on that contentious issue.”  

On whether the defense budget has a chance of passing, Barno says:

•  “Not likely without major Congressional revamping. Both new Senate Armed Service Chair John McCain and House Armed Service Chair Mac Thornberry are outspoken proponents of Congress’ constitutional duty to actively oversee national defense spending and priorities. Expect lots of activist alterations to the administration’s plans here.”

On whether Congress will approve the Obama administration’s expected $51 billion in funding for the war in Afghanistan as well as the conflict against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria Bensahel says:

•  “Funds for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), as the war funds are known, do not count against the budget caps. Over the past decade, Congress has allowed DoD to spend these funds not only on ongoing military operations, but also to supplement things that are normally in the base budget, such as new weapons and additional training. Congress will almost certainly do so again this year, using OCO funds as a way to get around the budget caps. The key question will be whether Congress will give DoD enough money to offset the $35 billion cut to its base budget request in addition to continuing to fund operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere around the world.”

Ashton Carter Confirmation Hearings

On how the confirmation hearings may unfold, Bensahel says:

•  “The Senate will easily confirm Ash Carter, perhaps even unanimously. Carter is very well qualified for the position and well regarded throughout the defense community as well as on Capitol Hill. Yet the confirmation hearings will be still be quite rocky. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain has already said that he intends to use the hearings to examine what he called the “feckless foreign policy” of the Obama administration. Carter will have to endure rough questions from outspoken opponents of U.S. policies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and beyond, and also manage to avoid any serious mistakes during his testimony before the confirmation vote occurs.”

On how Carter will be different than outgoing Sec Def Chuck Hagel, Barno says:

•  “Expect Carter to play a much more public role as the Defense Department’s ‘big ideas’ thinker and proponent. Carter will be a strong advocate of the so-called Offset Strategies, which argues for targeted investments in a range of U.S. capabilities in order to maintain the ability to project power around the world in the face of adversaries with access to increasingly sophisticated weaponry. But like Hagel, Carter will also be a vociferous opponent of sequestration cuts to defense. And now in a Republican-controlled Congress, he will now have to work extra hard to build bridges across the aisle in order to garner any support. It will be tough sledding.”


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