PRESIDENT'S PERSPECTIVE BUDGET
Trump’s Buildup: Easier Said Than Done
One of my favorite moments occurs in the original episode when Han Solo, trying to get his balky Millennium Falcon spacecraft to jump to light speed, advises the younger Luke Skywalker that, “Flying through hyper-space ain’t like dusting crops, boy!” I’ve always thought this was a humorous line that finds metaphorical expressions in many walks of life, including when political leaders attempt to make the jump from the passions and assertions of campaigns to the troubling detail of actually governing. This is where we find ourselves today.
In the September and October columns, I argued that we face two major challenges in U.S. defense programs going forward. The first is simply addressing the existent and emerging defense needs in a way that makes military forces more ready — in the near term — and more capable in the longer term. The military services know very well what those needs are, and articulate them routinely to senior leaders in the Pentagon with the future year defense program, and to congressional leaders when they explain their annual budget submissions. Identifying military requirements and translating them into budget requests — although admittedly an imperfect exercise — is still a fundamental function that the Defense Department addresses better than any other agency.
Which leads to the second challenge: getting budget submissions translated into congressional appropriations. It is in this area that we face an enormous problem. Although Congress has crafted a logical and sequential budget preparation process that is normally called “regular order,” the truth is that this process is rarely followed. In addition, it has now been further distorted by the spending limitations placed on discretionary spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the “sequestration” of funds that have resulted from it. In short, sequestration has limited funding below the levels required by our strategic aspirations and operational demands.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump frequently stated that he was going to spend more on defense and “restore our depleted military.” He articulated a defense program requiring more soldiers, more Marines, more aircraft, more ships and a modernized nuclear deterrent force. Now the rub: how does one get the funding to pay for it?
The Trump administration announced in late February that it would begin this effort to enhance the armed forces by adding $54 billion in the fiscal year 2018 budget request, which was described as a 10 percent increase. There are three immediate problems with this effort, all basically attached to the absence of “regular order.” First, the $54 billion is to be added to the existing BCA budget cap for 2018, which for the broader defense category known as “050,” one that includes both the Pentagon and those portions of the Energy Department that address the nuclear stockpile, is $549 billion. Although this would raise spending to $603 billion, that is above the existing BCA cap, which must be raised or otherwise waived.
Since the cap only applies to discretionary spending, the administration has stated that there would be $54 billion eliminated from the non-defense portion of discretionary spending funding the rest of the government. Reports have suggested this would reduce the State Department budget by over one-third. It is unlikely that such cuts to non-defense spending are either politically palatable or practically desirable.
Second, the Obama administration left plans on the table to increase the national defense accounts for 2018 to $585 billion — also a level above the BCA caps. In other words, even if the BCA cap can be somehow dismissed, the actual increase now proposed would be $18 billion not $54 billion — a 3 percent rather than a 10 percent increase. Such an increase would certainly be welcome in the Pentagon, but it is insufficient to address the known shortfalls in readiness and modernization that many believe the services actually need.
How do we know that? That leads to the third point, which is that the Chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have pegged that required spending level at $640 billion. In other words, the defense increase proposed by the Trump administration addresses only 60 percent of the need identified by Congress — which is itself even further above the BCA caps.
Is there a legislatively easy way to dismiss the caps that avoid a major congressional floor fight? Experts in legislative rules and tactics say there is not. Any of the approaches commonly used eventually require the need for 60 votes in the Senate. This basically means that raising funding, certainly in fiscal year 2017 and almost certainly in 2018, requires using the overseas contingency operations account, which allows funding outside the caps, but simultaneously adds to the federal deficit and debt; an outcome the BCA was intended to prevent.
All of this is indicative of a troublesome truth: governing is hard. Nearly everyone recognizes the threats resident in the strategic environment, and acknowledges that they occupy a very wide spectrum — wider than any we have seen before. But addressing them requires additional resources in both the near and longer terms, and providing such resources is essentially infeasible within the constraints of a budgetary structure designed to restrain funding rather than expand it.
The Trump administration is learning that campaign assertions are relatively easy. They only require the craftsmanship of a speechwriter and subsequent access to a microphone. Translating these assertions and aspirations into policy and action is hard, and our current budgetary chaos makes it even harder. So, to end where I began, with that enduring observation from Star Wars: “Flying through hyper-space ain’t like dusting crops!”