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President Trump is proposing to increase military spending in his first budget blueprint to Congress. By how much is debatable, since there is no agreed-upon baseline from which to measure growth. But one outcome is clear: the president’s proposed defense budget increases are inadequate to meet his stated goals of rebuilding the U.S. military.
Challenges to achieving a $30 billion defense increase for 2017
First, the budget amendment comes over in the form of mostly base defense spending of $25 billion plus some emergency funds of $5 billion. This is additional money for a fiscal year over half over already. But it is also an amount in line with what Pentagon leaders say they can execute responsibly in the time remaining.
By requesting most of the money in the form of additional base spending, the budget amendment requires Washington to unnecessarily reopen a closed Pandora’s Box with the modified and settled Budget Control Act (BCA) in exchange for more defense money this year.
Relitigating the BCA at this point in the fiscal year is asking for nothing but trouble and headaches. Or, in this case, government shutdowns and a yearlong spending freeze for all federal agencies. A full-year continuing resolution for the military would have meaningful consequences for those in uniform and would build in much lower growth over President Trump’s entire four-year term for defense as a result.
Second, the 2017 budget amendment is partially offset by $18 billion in additional reductions in domestic discretionary spending to pay for the changes in defense and security. These bill payers affect programs beloved by both Democrats and Republicans, especially in the Senate. Again, these cuts are in addition to the $54 billion in next year’s plan that already have both chambers of Congress lining up to say, “No way.”
Third, the budget amendment marries more money for the military with $3 billion in politically sensitive funding, composed of $1.5 billion to begin building a wall on the southern border and another $1.5 billion to “implement executive orders,” presumably with new Department of Homeland Security spending. Though such spending is small, it triggered a government shutdown threat from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) before the budget was even released.
Fourth, the $30 billion in additional defense dollars requested by the administration tracks with the revised unfunded priorities lists of the military and quite likely overlaps somewhat with money already contained in the recent House-passed defense appropriations bill. Without greater line-item fidelity, it is impossible to tell by how much, but appropriators will ignore any funding request already appropriated for, bringing the total supplemental to an amount below $30 billion.
Further, the Pentagon’s own briefing materials indicate that at least $1 billion will be paid for with unpopular cuts from within the Defense Department using savings from the Defense Health Program, the civilian hiring freeze, blended retirement system, and rate adjustments. Without further internal savings, the budget amendment would also not be deficit neutral.
Hurdles to reaching a higher defense budget in 2018
The trick for budget insiders is to look at anticipated year-over-year spending versus comparisons of requests by two presidents. That is because the Republican-controlled Congress has pushed to increase the amount of emergency money (known as overseas contingency operations, or OCO) in the current fiscal year. They’ve also pushed the Trump White House to submit this additional $30 billion budget amendment for 2017 in the first place. Absent this pressure, defense spending would have been much lower.
While the 2017 defense budget has a long, tortuous path until it is signed into law, the best case scenario is that it will be roughly $643 to $649 billion for the Defense Department, assuming all the stars align. By comparison, if so, President Trump’s request for total defense spending of $668 billion in 2018 is less than a three percent increase over 2017 levels. Hardly historic in its size, nor enough to do more than plug some readiness holes.
That scenario assumes both the 2017 budget amendment can pass and the 2018 president’s budget is viable. Right now, neither is likely.
By picking a fight and opening up the Budget Control Act for changes this year, when that issue was settled two years ago with Ryan-Murray 2.0, the White House also further poisons an already hyper partisan Congress and the negotiations needed to operate under regular order to take care of next year’s business now — and shutdown talk is already in the air.
What’s next for defense?
There is some “good” news, relatively speaking. First, both the White House and Congress agree that current defense spending plans are inadequate to meet the military’s national objectives. This is a reversal from the politics of the failed Super Committee in 2011 and the allowance of sequestration in 2013. So the current debate is not over whether or not defense should grow to meet the need, but by how much.
Second, once the 2018 appropriations process inevitably stalls out this summer, it will give all sides time to debate whether President Trump is proposing enough to realistically achieve his plan to rebuild the military. Republicans in Congress, led by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), have already crunched the numbers and run the analysis to conclude the best number to align defense strategy with resources is closer to $100 billion more for the military, rather than the more modest $54 billion requested by the administration.
While achieving a higher level of necessary defense spending was always going to be hard, this budget blueprint will increase the difficulty by an order of magnitude.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She worked previously in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff.
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