Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived
The Pentagon is on cloud nine with a major cash infusion on the way, but that euphoria could be short-lived.
After years of fighting, the Pentagon emerged victorious with a budget deal last week that gives defense spending a $165 billion hike over budget caps for the next two years.
It’s a huge figure for a department that for years has argued it has been short-changed by the sequester — spending ceilings imposed by an Obama-era budget deal that curbed defense spending.
Instead, budget analysts and some lawmakers are questioning how long the money will last. The 2011 Budget Control Act, the law that created the sequester, actually continues to exist until 2021, meaning the budget ceilings hated by the Pentagon could still return.
“I’ve told our people, our military people that we’re in pretty good shape in terms of fiscal years ’18 and ’19, but then what after that,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And the answer is, ‘I don’t have that answer.’ “
Congress has agreed to a two-year budget deal that sets defense spending at $700 billion for fiscal 2018, or $80 billion above budget caps, and $716 billion for fiscal 2019, or $85 billion above budget caps. Those numbers cover the Pentagon, as well as non-Pentagon defense spending such as the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs.
“To say that we appreciate Congress passing that urgently needed two-year budget agreement would be an understatement,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters traveling with him this week. “We’re grateful and it’s up to us now when the money starts coming in to make certain that we spend it wisely and earn the trust of the American people, the American Congress and certainly show that solvency and security go hand in hand.”
In line with the budget deal, the Trump administration this week unveiled a $716 billion defense budget request for fiscal 2019.
That includes $686 billion for the Pentagon, split between $617 billion for the base budget and $69 billion for a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to budget caps.
The money would add 25,900 troops to the ranks, 24,100 of which would be active duty. That would be split between 11,500 active-duty soldiers, 7,500 active-duty sailors, 1,000 active-duty Marines and 4,000 active-duty airmen.
The billions would also pay for 77 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 24 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets and 10 new Navy ships, among other hardware additions.
But it remains to be seen whether the funding to pay for the buildup can be sustained.
In 2020, when the budget deal expires and the Budget Control Act is in effect again, defense spending caps will be $576 billion for the base budget — or about $71 billion less than the planned 2019 base budget.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he doesn’t think the prospect of future budget uncertainty was dampening the Pentagon’s current elation too much. He said Congress could raise the caps again in 2020 and 2021.
“From what I’ve seen, everyone there is still popping champagne corks and sharpening their pencils” to plan how to spend the money, he said.
But Harrison said he sees other pressures on the defense budget in the coming decade the Pentagon should be concerned about — namely increasing deficits due to the tax cuts passed by Congress last year and growing mandatory spending — conditions that led to the budget caps in the first place.
“That’s a good reason to be smart about how you grow,” he said. For example, “you don’t want to add a lot of force structure because you might not be able to afford that force structure later on.”
Still, some lawmakers question whether the windfall was necessary at all.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a noninterventionist who led an unsuccessful charge against the budget deal and shut down the government for several hours last week, blasted Republicans for wanting “unlimited military spending.”
“There’s sort of this question, ‘Is the military budget too small or maybe is our mission too large around the world?’ ” Paul said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last weekend. “And because Republicans are unwilling to confront that, they want more, more, more for military spending.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, supports increased defense spending but expressed alarm at the “fiscally unsound” approach Congress has taken and hinted that will mean cuts in the future.
“It is essential that we provide the Department of Defense with stable, coherent budgets that enable our military to defend the United States and our allies in a complex threat environment,” he said in a statement this week about the budget request. “When you cut taxes in the face of a $22 trillion debt and increase the deficit from $700 billion to nearly a trillion, you are making a public policy decision about what you do and don’t want to spend money on, and those tax cuts will reverberate in our budget calculus–including the defense budget–for years to come.”
Despite the potential headwinds in the 2020s, defense hawks largely say they are focused on this year.
Asked if he’s concerned about sustaining the defense budget when the budget deal expires, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said, “let’s just get this one finished.”
He also indicated a continued buildup could be paid for by finding internal savings.
“The secretary and the deputy secretary are very serious about reforms within the department that can generate savings,” Thornberry said.
“Now our obligation is to make sure, if they do that, they get to keep those savings to reinvest them,” he continued.
“Because sometimes in the past, when money’s been saved in a program, Congress will scoop it up and out and that reduces any incentive to find savings.”
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