The president has announced a state of emergency and, predictably, congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, are outraged. President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE’s decision surely will lead to a court battle. Whatever the outcome, his determination to reprogram some $3.5 billion in military construction funds to “finish the wall” probably has guaranteed that the fiscal year 2020 budget will not come close to the administration’s request for — or the priority needs of — the Department of Defense (DOD).
In other words, the nation’s defense and security will, paradoxically, be put at risk by this political/legal/budgetary battle.
Well before the president’s decision on the wall, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency MORE (D-Wash.) indicated the likely defense budget request was far greater than he was prepared to support. After all, Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyJan. 6 committee issues latest round of subpoenas for rally organizers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision Jan. 6 panel subpoenas 11, including Pierson, other rally organizers MORE, then the president’s Office of Management and Budget director and now White House chief of staff, had pressed for a $700 billion national security budget — well below the $733 billion that DOD was pushing for, and considerably below the $750 billion budget the administration reportedly plans to unveil in March.
Adding to Smith’s concern has been the deployment of U.S. military forces to the Mexican border. These forces now will total 9,650 troops, the equivalent of a reinforced brigade. Smith and his fellow Democrats have seen no need either for the original deployment of 5,900 troops, their extension beyond mid-December, or the announcement this month of the deployment of 3,750 more troops. To the Democrats, spending on these troops and on the wall — neither of which was anticipated in the FY 2019 budget request — simply indicates “fat” in the Pentagon budget.
In addition, even the lowest of the three estimates considered for the FY 2020 budget is well above the 2011 Budget Control Act’s cap of $576 billion. The administration appears prepared to achieve its $750 billion target, and work around the budget cap, by setting the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account at $174 billion. This ploy also has aroused the Democrats’ ire.
All of these developments likely will result in Smith and his majority on the House Armed Services Committee approving a defense budget well below the administration’s target, and probably nowhere near the $700 billion mark that the White House at one point had asked the Pentagon to consider. It is highly unlikely in the current atmosphere, with the Democrats accusing the president of flouting congressional intent, that they would countenance an end-run around the Budget Control Act cap and the budget deficit that such a huge OCO request would represent — especially since Mulvaney had criticized the use of the OCO account to sidestep budget restrictions.
It is certainly possible that Congress once again will reach a compromise that allows the defense and non-defense caps to be breached. The Democrats are clearly intent on raising the limit on non-defense spending and, with their majority in the House, appear empowered to insist that every additional dollar to be spent on defense should be matched by a dollar for non-defense programs. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the Democrats would agree to raise the caps to an amount approaching $700 billion for defense, to be matched by an equal amount for non-defense programs.
Perhaps if the president had taken more account of congressional prerogatives, the administration might have been able to push through a defense program — matched by non-defense accounts — that at least reached the $700 billion mark. In the aftermath of his state of emergency declaration, however, the likelihood of that happening is remote. And the nation’s security will suffer as a result.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.