The Biden administration is reportedly close to settling on a topline figure for defense spending in its 2024 budget proposal, scheduled for release on March 9.
The chief financial officer at the Department of Defense said the spending request for 2024 is expected to be larger than the $858 billion enacted in the 2023 fiscal year, making it the largest in history in nominal terms. The total for 2023 includes $817 billion for the Pentagon, with the remainder going toward defense programs in other departments, led by the Department of Energy.
Spending cuts ahead? While the president’s request will likely mark a historic high, Congress is expected to consider reducing that level as lawmakers look for ways to cut the deficit. Republicans in the House are calling for significant reductions in overall spending levels and are seeking to use the debt ceiling as leverage in negotiations over the issue – negotiations the White House has refused to engage in so far.
One idea being discussed by Republicans is to reduce all discretionary spending, which includes defense, to 2022 levels. That would mean a reduction of about $75 billion next year for the Pentagon, or a nearly 10% budget cut.
However, there’s no agreement on that approach, or on the idea that defense should be subject to any cuts at all. There are plenty of defense hawks in the Republican conference, some of whom want to see an increase in spending in 2024 in the range of 5%. “We have a duty to protect taxpayer dollars to reduce our debt and deficit – but this must not come at the expense of compromising our military strength and readiness,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) told Task & Purpose.
At the same time, a handful of fiscal hawks say that everything in the discretionary budget should be fair game for reductions, including defense and especially aid to Ukraine.
Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord told Politico that if Republicans do push ahead with defense cuts, they’ll have to get specific about where to reduce spending. “You are going to have to face the harder question of what is it that you want to do less? Do you want to have fewer people? Do you want to have fewer ships? Fewer airplanes? Smaller pay raises? That’s where the money is in the defense budget,” he said.
One specific issue in the defense budget cited by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) as a desirable target for cuts could be difficult to address. “Eliminate all the money spent on ‘wokeism,’” McCarthy said in January, referring to institutional efforts to reduce racism, increase diversity and deal with climate change, among other things. “Eliminate all the money [they are spending] trying to find different fuels.”
McCord said that eliminating such efforts would produce very little by way of savings. “I’m not aware that anybody knows the number … but you would need a super telescope” to see it, he said.
The bottom line: Expect to see budget hawks battling defense hawks as Republicans attempt to negotiate a spending deal in exchange for raising the debt ceiling in the coming weeks.