Michael Herson in the News

Syria strike would stir new budget debate

By Austin Wright


8/26/13 4:35 PM EDT

A divided Congress mired in gridlock is yet another hurdle for President Barack Obama as he plots a complicated military campaign in Syria that’s sure to exacerbate the Pentagon’s fiscal woes.

Just ask Rep. Richard Nugent, who has three sons in the military and is skeptical of getting entangled in another conflict abroad.

“The administration has to come out and explain to Congress what their goal is and how they’re going to accomplish that goal,” the Florida Republican told POLITICO. “Is it going to be one bomb, or a hundred thousand?”

“One bomb, that could come out of DoD’s base budget,” he said. “If you’re talking thousands, no, they don’t have that in their base budget. You’d have to come to Congress and explain why we’re going to sacrifice, again, dollars that we don’t have.”

Analysts say the administration has little chance of securing congressional approval for operations in Syria, much less a separate spending bill to fund an intervention most Americans say they oppose, according to a number of recent polls. So the president probably won’t even ask, several defense insiders told POLITICO.

And without a supplemental spending bill, the Defense Department would be forced to pull from its base budget to pay for military operations in Syria — straining the Pentagon’s finances as it grapples with sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that have led to civilian furloughs and reductions in training and maintenance.

For the defense establishment in Washington, the big question is whether the military’s involvement in Syria would tip public opinion in favor of more broad intervention — and whether it would reignite the movement to put an end to sequestration.

“I don’t know that in a chamber where you have Republicans in the majority that you could actually get to a decision” on Syria, said Mieke Eoyang, director of the national security program at the centrist think tank Third Way. “I think they’ll duck the issue because they can’t figure out what they think about the issue, at least the Republicans.”

Divisions within the GOP surfaced clearly last month when House Republican leaders shut down an effort to prohibit the president from intervening in Syria. Party leaders prevented a floor debate in the House that would have drawn attention to the divisions and could have tied the president’s hands on the issue.

The House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), took the rare step of limiting the floor debate for the defense bill, excluding all but one amendment dealing with Syria.

Of the seven amendments that were blocked, three had been submitted by Republicans and three others had bipartisan support. Just one was a Democratic amendment, put forward by Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida. All of them would have prohibited the use of funds in the bill for military operations in Syria or to support rebel groups there.

The single Syria amendment that was allowed on the House floor was virtually meaningless, barring funds for operations in Syria if such actions would violate the War Powers Resolution, a 1973 law requiring congressional approval for military action abroad — and a law derided as unconstitutional by every president since its passage.

“As the president considers next steps in Syria, I call on him to consult Congress as prescribed by the War Powers Resolution,” Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) said in a statement on Monday. “We stand ready to share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement.”

Two years ago, Rigell blasted the president for launching military operations in Libya without first notifying Congress — to no avail.

“The most likely funding model for any Syria operation at this point is to borrow from the Libya no-fly zone where the White House directs the services to pay the tab out of hide,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow for national security at the American Enterprise Institute.

If the operation lasted longer than expected, she said, Pentagon leaders could ask Congress to shift funds within their own budget to help pay for the campaign. “But there would be no separate war spending or emergency supplemental request for any military action in Syria,” Eaglen explained.

In addition, she said, “Syria involvement is, unfortunately, not enough to turn off sequestration — an outcome whose victim is hostage to much larger fiscal, political and ideological fights.”

Michael Herson, a defense lobbyist and president of American Defense International, agreed.

“The last time we did something like this was in Libya, and they paid for it right out of their base budget,” he said. “I think Congress would not authorize action in Syria right now.”