Washington braces for clash over defense budget

A clash over the $740 billion defense budget is poised to erupt in 2021, with Democrats set to battle among themselves over whether to reduce funding.

President-elect Joe Biden and other prominent Democrats have said they do not anticipate big cuts in the coming year, but progressives are pushing to slash funding, seeing an opportunity to achieve a long-sought goal with the party in control of the White House and House next year.

Injecting some uncertainty into the looming debate is control of the Senate, which hinges on two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5. Republicans need to win at least one to maintain control of the upper chamber.

“If Republicans keep control of the Senate — and we’ll see how the Georgia runoffs go — then fundamentally what that means is that to get any significant piece of legislation through, including a change in the defense budget, you’re going to have to have at least some bipartisan support,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So that I think is going to moderate any urge to change the defense budget by any significant amount.”

The annual defense budget grew by about $140 billion under President Trump, or about 23 percent, compared to when he entered office. It includes funding for the Pentagon and other defense programs such as Energy Department nuclear weapons programs.

After years of growth, the Pentagon has projected a relatively flat budget through 2025 with funding “averaging about $707 billion per year in 2021 dollars,” according to a September analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who favors a flat budget but has left open the possibility of supporting cuts, predicted leading up to the November election that Democrats would fight over the issue if Biden won or Democrats took control of the Senate.

“There will be a fight, no question,” Smith said in October.

Biden has not proposed major cuts to the defense budget but has stressed the need to better prioritize funding in emerging areas such as space, cyber and artificial intelligence, saying the U.S. needs “fiscal discipline” on military spending and “smarter investments.”

“With the return to great power competition posed by the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, we need to maintain our superiority, but we must do so affordably and by preparing for the wars of tomorrow,” Biden wrote in a September questionnaire for the Military Officers Association of America. 

Biden has also indicated his administration will fundamentally expand the definition of national security, saying his national security adviser pick Jake Sullivan “understands my vision that economic security is national security.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a former congressional adviser on defense issues who is now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said former President Obama offered a blueprint for such a vision by taking money out of defense for food stamps, basic research and other domestic priorities.

“It’s not a new line of thinking but it does justify lower defense budgets,” Eaglen said.

Progressive Democrats have been pushing Biden to slash the defense budget in order to prioritize other areas such as public health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a July vote in Congress seen partially as a message to Biden, progressives pushed an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would have cut the budget by 10 percent. The amendment was defeated by bipartisan majorities in both chambers, but progressives hailed the number of “yes” votes — more than for similar previous efforts — as a sign of momentum.

Dozens of progressive groups also signed a letter to Biden during the campaign calling for a $200 billion cut to the defense budget, and in mid-November more than 30 progressive groups sent a memo to Biden’s transition team calling for a return to Obama-era defense spending levels.

The groups suggested Biden eliminate a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account that has been widely maligned as a slush fund, phase out the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, halt the purchase of new aircraft carriers, abolish the year-old Space Force or cut spending on missile defense.

Eaglen said the most extreme outcome would be a $40 billion top-line cut for defense in 2022. However, she predicted the more likely case is that “the department’s buying power will shrink by 2 percent,” citing a similar dip from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021.

“It’s good political cover to say Trump did it in his last year, it can’t be that bad,” she added.

Harrison, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the looming budget fight as a proxy battle over policy issues.

“The real fights are going to come over specific policy issues, like how many troops to keep in Iraq and Afghanistan, how many troops to keep in Africa, nuclear modernization, the overall size of nuclear forces, missile defense,” he said.

One “wild card” in how the debate unfolds, Harrison said, is whether Republicans rediscover the libertarian side that gave rise to the Tea Party movement and fueled the Budget Control Act that caused major defense budget cuts during the Obama administration.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), currently the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring at the end of the year, has cautioned against getting “too carried away” with calls to slash the defense budget, saying in mid-November that “some of the people who have been most vocal about cutting the defense budget are the people who never vote for defense budgets anyway.”

Robert Work, who served as deputy Defense secretary in the Obama administration, predicted a steady defense budget next year if Republicans keep the Senate, but said the budget is more unpredictable beyond that.

“It could go one of two ways. In the near term, plus or minus 2 percent. After ’22, it could go down a bit more, but I don’t expect a major decline,” he said at a recent Center for a New American Security event.

Tags Adam Smith biden administration budget cuts Defense budget defense budget cuts Defense spending Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mac Thornberry The Year Ahead 2021
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