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Editor’s note: The next president is in for a rough welcome to the Oval Office given the list of immediate crises and slow-burning policy challenges, both foreign and domestic. What should Washington do? Why should the average American care? We’ve set out to clearly define US strategic interests and provide actionable policy solutions to help the new administration build a 2017 agenda that strengthens American leadership abroad while bolstering prosperity at home.
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Editor’s Note: This piece appears in the May 1 edition of The Weekly Standard magazine.
There were plenty of worries that President Trump’s “America First” campaigning signaled a further retreat of American power and leadership abroad—a worry not mitigated either by his Inaugural Address or his speech before Congress, in which foreign and defense policy were given short shrift. Those concerns have not completely gone away, given the uncertainty over how this White House goes about making foreign and defense decisions and over who exactly will end up filling the many vacant policy positions at State, Defense, and the National Security Council.
But adversaries and events have a way of forcing a president’s hand. In recent weeks and days we’ve seen cruise missile strikes against a Syrian air base, the “mother of all bombs” released on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan, an uptick in diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea, worsening ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, increased U.S. military involvement in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and plans to add more ground forces into Afghanistan. All of which suggests that the logic behind the president’s desire to rebuild the country’s military capabilities and fix the current massive shortfalls in military readiness is both reasonable and urgent.
While the effort to get a defense appropriations bill for the current year through Congress is long overdue, the military services are in need of an immediate infusion of cash. They can and should be provided with that through an emergency supplemental spending bill for the Pentagon.
The reasons for an immediate supplemental are many. To begin with, funding the military at the levels set for last year through a continuing resolution (as is currently the case) only deepens existing problems in readiness caused by too few funds, existing operations, and aging equipment. Toss in more demands on the military, as the administration seems to be doing, and the readiness problem is compounded.
But any defense supplemental has to do more than simply fund readiness. Today’s modernization is tomorrow’s readiness, as the service chiefs are fond of saying. And there are no shortage of “shovel-ready” procurement programs on hot production lines that can be cost-effectively accelerated, such as destroyer and cruiser upgrades, Army vehicle improvements, increased procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35), and munitions buys across the services. Moreover, the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps require immediate expansion in end-strength to meet current mission demands.
President Trump’s own supplemental budget request for the Pentagon was $30 billion. The figure was based on what the military services thought they could reasonably spend in the remaining months of the 2017 fiscal year. It’s a first step but insufficient.
The U.S. military could easily allocate and absorb another $45 billion in supplemental FY2017 spending over and above the amount the Trump team has proposed. And to alleviate the issue of spending extra funds before the end of the fiscal year, House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry has proposed allowing funds to be obligated beyond the normal September 30 deadline. A supplemental of such size would begin to address the existing hole in readiness accounts, provide greater budget stability for the military services for planning, and allow the defense industrial base to begin heating up its production capabilities by hiring new machinists, welders, and the other highly skilled workers necessary to carry out any buildup.
In short, whether the issue is readiness, modernization, or personnel, a supplemental appropriation of $75 billion would not go wasted. To the contrary, it’s the essential down payment for the rebuild to follow.
Just as the Trump budget has been stuck on hold for a lack of consensus between Republicans and Democrats on how to overcome the spending strictures imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, so too has forward movement on a supplemental appropriations bill. But negotiations over a supplemental could lay the groundwork for a broader compromise for the 2018 appropriations process. The key is coming up with a new defense/nondefense spending ratio that provides an incentive for Democrats to allow an increase in defense spending to advance.
As things stand, OMB director Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to find sufficient “offsets” in the nondefense budgets to match the increase in defense spending dollar for dollar has been a nonstarter with Democrats. Finding that new “golden ratio” will require compromise by House Republicans and Senate Democrats and leadership from a White House that prioritizes national security.
Normally, a supplemental appropriations bill is only that. In this case, it could be, and should be, seen as much more.
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