President Trump has offered significantly different opinions on future defense spending in the last few weeks, indicating in October that next year’s budget would be cut amid rising deficits and then reversing course in recent days to back a significant increase in funding.
As we told you earlier this week, Trump is reportedly now in favor of a budget request of $750 billion for the 2020 fiscal year, up from $716 billion in 2019. That would represent a roughly 5 percent increase in defense spending on a year-over-year basis, coming on top of big increases in 2018 and 2019.
These conflicting signals are injecting a new degree of uncertainty into the budgeting process, The Hill’s Ellen Mitchell reports, sowing confusion on Capitol Hill as military officials and lawmakers scramble to keep up with the president’s shifting views.
Here are some of the key issues at stake:
Spending caps come first: Some lawmakers say that before Congress talks about a topline spending figure, party leaders need to deal with the spending caps created by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposes a $576 billion cap on Pentagon spending in 2020.
“I think frankly, they’re putting the cart before the horse. The caps relief should come first and then we can work to maximize the budget. I think our focus, our attention is going to be on sequester relief,” Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed (D-RI) said.
The caps, however, haven’t been much of a deterrent to higher spending lately, with lawmakers agreeing to lift them in the budget deal covering 2018 and 2019.
There’s still a lot of negotiating to do: Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who will chair the House Appropriations Committee starting in January, said that the numbers being batted around don’t have much meaning until they are part of the negotiation process. “Until it comes here, it’s irrelevant,” Lowey told Defense News. “When they sit and negotiate with us, then we can talk about it.”
Congress needs to look at the whole budget: Reed complained that Trump’s approach doesn’t take the budget process seriously: “It’s not a coherent, comprehensive approach to the budget problems. It’s a number here, a number there. It doesn’t deal with the underlying issue, which is sequestration, how do you relieve it for defense and nondefense, how do you fund the State Department if you’re only funding DoD and nothing else.”
Defense hawks are concerned: A group of 70 lawmakers sent a letter to Trump last week requesting that he abandon his proposed defense spending cut and stick with the $733 billion Pentagon officials have been discussing. While many would no doubt be pleased to see an increase rather than a cut, the indecision itself is troubling. “Yes, it would be better if there were a consensus from Day 1 of everybody, but that just isn’t the way things work in Washington," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said.
Defense expert Todd Harrison highlighted the uncertainty Trump’s approach is creating: “It’s just all over the map and I think what that indicates is that there’s no firm position yet in the White House on what the level of funding is going to be.” He added, “We’re in uncharted territory here because I cannot recall a time when at this point in the budget development process an administration was having a public debate about the DOD top line with this range of numbers being thrown around.”
And so are deficit hawks: Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget issued a statement this week pointing out that defense spending has risen sharply lately, paid for with more debt. “Policymakers have increased defense spending by 13 percent in the past two years, with no plan to pay for that increase. It would be irresponsible to consider further debt-financed spending hikes.”