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A public policy blog from AEI
This week, White House budget chief and proud fiscal hawk Mick Mulvaney told Congress through President Trump’s latest budget that the need to grow the military won out over the desire to shrink the deficit.
But in true Mulvaney style, he also went on to tell Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) that if he were still in Congress, he would not vote for the budget he just submitted. While his office later backtracked, it’s safe to assume Mr. Mulvaney’s testimony under oath was entirely accurate and fully consistent with his long career championing deficit reduction.
It is remarkable that a former leading light of the Tea Party Caucus has confessed that the state of defense is so urgent as to usurp fiscal belt-tightening. But that assessment is increasingly — and objectively — undeniable.
The consequences stemming from a half dozen years of funding cuts without a corresponding reduction in demand for the military came to a visible and tragic crescendo last summer with two Navy ship collisions and the unnecessary deaths of 17 sailors.
Beyond the sticker shock of the $686 billion investment for the Pentagon in 2019 is an ugly reality of neglect. The Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy admits as much saying the military is “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy.”
So while a 13% increase over FY 2017 defense spending and a 7% jump over last year’s original budget request is significant and welcome, this new money is primarily intended to fill the hole dug by the Budget Control Act and other woes. In Trumpian terms, it is not enough to buy a “bigly” buildup.
Legislators should be prepared to accept the truth that this influx of cash will not be enough to dramatically reshape the force or rebuild it along the lines of a Reagan-style buildup — or even something outlined by then-candidate Trump on the campaign trail. Compared to the Congressional plan outlining $700 billion in defense spending for 2018 that Trump signed into law in December, funding for new equipment actually falls by nearly 3% in Trump’s bigger 2019 budget. Nevertheless, the president should get credit for proposing a sizable increase to research and development.
What’s the result of investing in readiness and research while ignoring procurement? A “barbell” budget filling needed gaps caused by past spending cuts and developing the technologies needed to win the wars of the 2030s, while shortchanging the messy middle.
Unfortunately, it’s that period that holds the most risk for the United States. After all, if we are weak today and will be strong tomorrow, adversaries know it is better to act now than later.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should — despite Trump’s banter and higher toplines, his overall approach bears many similarities with strategies President Obama used throughout his administration. Trump’s debt-financed defense budget request growth results is the largest topline request since fiscal year 2011 — the same year the Budget Control Act was passed. His decision to prioritize high-tech weapons over proven systems is the same recipe the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter suggested.
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