McCain/Thornberry Military Plan would Boost Spending, Deficits, and Dangers

Congressional Republicans have a new plan for a military spending boost. John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week released a report calling for a $54 billion increase in 2018 Pentagon spending and a $430 billion increase above current Pentagon plans for the next five fiscal years. McCain’s House counterpart, Mac Thornberry, backed that plan today in a Fox News op-ed. Both chairmen also want an immediate “supplemental” increase of an indeterminate amount to the 2017 military budget. 

Enacting the McCain/Thornberry plan requires undoing the defense spending caps set by the Budget Control Act. Complying with the caps would shave more than $100 billion off existing plans over the next five years, meaning that the new plan would spend more than half a trillion more than current law allows. That’s before counting any 2017 supplemental or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, currently at $59 billion. The plan calls for transferring OCO spending, which is now uncapped, back into the base budget once the abolishment of the Budget Control Act leaves it unconstrained.

The title of Thornberry’s op-ed, Here’s How We Will Make America’s Military Great Again, suggests its intended audience. During the campaign, President Trump endorsed an across-the-board military buildup likely to cost $70 to $100 billion a year but absurdly claimed that he could fund it by cutting Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse. Since his election, Trump and his advisors have done little to clarify how they’ll fund the buildup or use the expanded military, besides parading it down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump’s distraction allowed McCain and Thornberry the opportunity to set the GOP’s direction on defense. Trump’s appointments and his difficulty formulating policies mean that he’s likely to support the McCain/Thornberry plan. Given that and Republican control of both Houses, the plan might seem destined for success, with the increase funded in the GOP’s preferred way: through cuts to non-defense spending.

But Senate Democrats are likely to filibuster an effort to erase the defense caps absent a matching increase in non-defense discretionary spending. While that sort of deficit-swelling deal might be acceptable to Trump, McCain, and Thornberry, it could produce enough congressional Republican opposition to prevent passage.

If there’s a way to have a defense build-up while satisfying Democrats and most Congressional Republicans, it’s to stick with what’s worked in recent years: maintaining a semblance of concern about deficits and a show of parity between defense and non-defense spending. That means raising but maintaining caps in both areas while shoving more base Pentagon funds into OCO under the pretext that it’s temporary. The bottom line is that the current political circumstances will probably produce a big defense buildup funded through deficit spending or, more likely, a smaller defense increase funded by more deceptive deficit-spending.

Not even that sort of watered-down buildup is needed. The case for a buildup relies on a tired litany of exaggerated dangers and misrepresentations about the horrors of the Pentagon having to live on $600 billion a year. In fact, current military spending is easily sufficient to meet current threats. With a more restrained military strategy steering the U.S military away from avoidable tensions and endless wars, the defense budget could be far smaller.

Both McCain and Thornberry contend that sequestration is ravaging U.S. military readiness. But there has been no sequestration since 2013; it occurs only if spending exceeds caps, and defense spending remains near Cold War highs. The recent drawdown was historically mild and mostly funded by shrunken war costs. Readiness is generally okay but could be improved if the Pentagon—or the House Armed Services Committees—shifted money from acquisition to operational accounts.

The report and op-ed both focus on the threats low defense spending is supposedly encouraging. They fail to note that fighting terrorists including ISIS—even if the effort were expanded by Trump—costs less than a tenth of U.S. military spending. They fail to explain how higher defense spending would solve the difficulties posed by Iran and North Korea. Nor is there reason to believe that higher military spending would cow Russia and China into more compliant behavior, as both Chairmen contend. If there is a deficiency in the U.S. approach to the Ukraine and the South China Sea that allows aggression, it is a result of the limited U.S. will to start a catastrophic war over matters remote from U.S. safety, not an absence of military power to use if war occurs.

There are strains on the U.S. military today. But they’re more the result of a lack of strategy than a lack of money. By spending money on everything and endorsing every mission, the McCain/Thornberry plan would create a larger version of the same problem. We should instead do less with our military—avoiding the distant trouble that justifies most military spending.

On why that sort of restraint would improve U.S. security, see the various Cato works on defense budgets and policy and our conference on “The Case for Restraint.” On the exaggeration of danger as a means to justify high defense spending, see Christopher Preble and John Mueller’s edited volume and other works by Cato scholars.