Congress must pass a budget deal to rebuild America

Over the weekend, National Security Advisor HR McMaster cautioned that the threat of war with North Korea is “increasing every day.” McMaster’s warning came only days after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts believe could strike anywhere in the continental United States. Yet even as threats grow abroad, the biggest danger to our military might come here at home from congressional inaction. In the absence of a budget agreement in the next few days, our military will face further cuts at a time when we are relying on our men and women in uniform more than ever to keep us safe. It’s time for Congress to think creatively and act in a manner worthy of our service members spending this holiday season on the frontlines.

Since 2011, Congress’ inability to reach a long-term budgetary agreement has taken a toll on our military—including a reduction of $924 billion compared to the budget path laid out by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The cuts are enforced through a budgetary process known as sequestration, which uses across-the-board cuts to lower funding to levels established by caps on both defense and non-defense spending. So far, Congress has acted in two-year increments to raise caps on both defense and non-defense spending by a 1:1 ratio. In other words, in each cap deal to date, for every dollar added for guns, we’ve added a corresponding dollar for butter.

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Over the five years that sequestration has been in effect, bipartisan budget agreements have added back on average, $19 billion per year to the Pentagon—less than one fifth of the Budget Control Act’s yearly cuts of about $100 billion compared to the Gates budget plan. The third and most recent of these agreements, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, raised the defense caps in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 by $25 billion and $15 billion, respectively. 

So now Congress must reach a new deal to raise the caps through at least fiscal year 2019—and preferably, through 2021, the end of the Budget Control Act’s 10-year window. In the absence of a new deal, defense spending will be capped at $549 billion—$85 billion below the level Congress endorsed just last month on an overwhelming basis in the National Defense Authorization Act. As Armed Services Committee Chairmen Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: Trump praises Pompeo meeting with Kim | White House, Mattis deny reported rift over Syria strikes | Southwest pilot is Navy vet | Pentagon reform bill hits snag Top Dem expresses 'serious concerns' about plan to cut B from Pentagon agencies Overnight Defense: Lawmakers worry over Syria strategy | Trump's base critical of strikes | Flake undecided on Pompeo | Coast Guard plans to keep allowing transgender members | GOP chair wants to cut B from Pentagon agencies MORE (R-Texas) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos Democrats mull audacious play to block Pompeo Overnight Defense: Trump steps up fight with California over guard deployment | Heitkamp is first Dem to back Pompeo for State | Dems question legality of Syria strikes MORE (R-Ariz.) have put it bluntly, “We cannot ignore the warnings of Secretary Mattis and our uniformed commanders. This era of forcing our troops to do more with less must come to end. We call on the negotiators to meet Congress’s Constitutional obligation to give our troops the resources they need.”

Time is running out. Because Congress kicked the can down the road back in October, a short-term government funding patch is set to expire this Friday. In all likelihood, a two-week stop-gap measure will push the deadline back to Dec. 22. This means that Congress will have until then to negotiate a budget deal which could get 60 votes in the Senate. 

While there is general bipartisan support for increasing Pentagon funding, non-defense spending has been a point of contention in previous negotiations. Democrats have typically insisted on one-for-one domestic increases to match defense plus-ups, while Republicans have generally wanted to limit increases to domestic spending. If there is a way to break the defense to non-defense spending 1:1 increase ratio, as we did in the 2017 appropriations package, even better. We should fund our military first—fulfilling Congress’ most important Constitutional responsibility of providing for the common defense—before then debating how we spend taxpayer resources on subsequent priorities. However, right now, neither side seems all that willing to budge.

As senior congressional leaders huddle at the White House today, there is a unique opportunity for non-defense increases that both parties can support. Throughout his campaign, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIG investigating Comey memos over classified information: report Overnight Defense: Congress poised for busy week on nominations, defense bill | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump administration appeals decision to block suspected combatant's transfer Top Pruitt aid requested backdate to resignation letter: report MORE made clear that rebuilding American infrastructure would be a major priority of his administration. Indeed, in his 2018 budget request, the president outlined an ambitious $1 trillion infrastructure plan, including $200 billion in federal spending. At the same time, Senate Democrats have also proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, albeit one that relies more heavily on government spending.

The outlines of a deal are easy to see: Congress should make good on its promise in the NDAA by raising the defense cap to at least $634 billion in fiscal year 2018—an increase of $85 billion. This could be matched by an $85 billion increase to the non-defense discretionary cap, dedicated to infrastructure spending. Extending the deal a second year could mean a subsequent defense increase of $100 billion—the difference between the 2019 budget cap and the amount recommended by McCain in his defense white paper—and an infrastructure investment of $100 billion. 

An agreement on this scale would go a long way toward rebuilding America—both our military superiority and our crumbling infrastructure. It would meet bipartisan defense spending goals while also coming close to the $200 billion federal infrastructure investment outlined by the president in his budget request. Fiscal hawks, who are rightly concerned about increasing our national debt and deficit, are likely to object to raising the caps. They’ll want any spending increases to be fully offset through corresponding reductions. They’ll also note that DoD, as with any big bureaucracy, has its fair share of inefficiencies and waste. 

As one of three millennials in Congress, I share these concerns about the current generation bankrupting mine. But as we work to make the Pentagon more efficient, we need to recognize that one of the largest sources of Pentagon waste is Congress itself. For example, according to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, due to inefficiencies from continuing resolutions, the Navy essentially “put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid on it, and burned it.” Additionally, we need to be honest about the real drivers of our national debt (hint: neither defense nor non-defense discretionary spending is ultimately responsible for our long-term skyrocketing debt).

So we will have to get clear-eyed and creative when it comes to paying for the rebuild and getting our fiscal house in order. I’m open to hearing any and all ideas. I’d happily revive and participate on a new Simpson Bowles-style commission comprised only of members of Congress below the age of 40. There are also plenty of interesting ideas out there for generating new revenue. 

To be sure, there’s no easy fix. But when I think about my friends who are still in uniform, I know that the costs of painful offsets will be miniscule compared to the costs of failing to provide adequate funding for our military and thereby inviting foreign aggression. I am willing to put everything on the table to reach a solution that works. What I cannot accept is failing to do right by our men and women in uniform—especially at a time when we are at war and global storm clouds continue to gather. 

Between now and the end of the year, Congress has a singular opportunity to rebuild both our military and our infrastructure. But we cannot let past partisan red lines get in the way. We must come together, make hard and if necessary, painful choices, and most of all, do our job.

Gallagher represents Wisconsin's 8th District and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.