Will the Pentagon Get a Big Budget Increase?

CSBA’s Katherine Blakeley has published a brief but highly informative analysis of the prospects for a major military spending boost.

Bottom line up front: The combination of “procedural and political hurdles” in Congress make an increase along the lines of what the Trump administration requested (approx. $54 billion) unlikely. The substantially larger increases passed out of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (roughly $30–33 billion more than the president’s request) seem even more fanciful.

Blakeley concludes:

The wide gulfs between the political parties, and between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks, will not be closed soon. Additionally, the full legislative calendar of the Congress before September 30, 2017, including Obamacare repeal, FY 2018 appropriations, and an impending debt ceiling debate, increase the likelihood that FY 2018 will begin with a several-month-long continuing resolution, rather than a substantial increase in defense spending.  

This aligns with what I’ve suspected all along – but Blakeley provides critical details to back up her conclusions.

For years now, we’ve heard defense hawks say that adequately funding the defense budget shouldn’t be a struggle for a country as wealthy as the United States. A mere 4 percent of GDP, for example, should be a piece of cake. And, at one level, that is absolutely correct. It should be easy. But when you dig into it, as Blakeley has done, you discover that even 3 percent is a real struggle. After all, $50 billion – a rounding error in a $19 trillion economy – threatened to bring the entire budget process to a screeching halt in late June, and may do so again.

If and when a final budget deal is hammered out, the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account may provide at least some of the additional billions that the HASC and the SASC want. Because OCO is exempted from the bipartisan Budget Control Act’s spending caps, additional defense dollars do not have to come at the expense of non-defense discretionary spending, as President Trump’s budget proposed.

But many billions from the Pentagon’s base budget (i.e. non-war spending) have been shoved into the OCO for years now, and the gimmick is starting to wear thin – after all, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked years ago. The voices in Congress and beyond who pushed the BCA in the first place, and who remain committed to reducing the deficit (e.g. current OMB chief Mick Mulvaney), are likely to feel that they’re being played.

The defense vs. non-defense spending debate is, and always has been, about politics, not math. And it isn’t obvious that the Pentagon will win this political battle. Given this uncertainty, we should adapt our military’s objectives to the means available to achieve them. We should prioritize U.S. security and defending vital national interests, and approach foreign adventures that don’t advance these interests with great caution. Expecting our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to do the same – or more – with less money isn’t fair to them, and isn’t likely to work.