Mattis Pushes Back Against Potential Budget Cuts Floated by Trump

By Jon Harper

Photo: Defense Dept.

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — During a high profile speech Dec. 1, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis took aim at a White House suggestion to cut the Pentagon budget.

Defense officials have been building a $733 billion budget request for fiscal year 2020, but in recent weeks President Donald Trump has tasked department officials to put together a $700 billion fiscal blueprint. That would be 4.5 percent less than Pentagon brass had hoped for.

Cutting the military’s budget “would be a disservice to our troops and the American people they serve and protect,” Mattis said during a keynote address at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, an annual gathering of top government officials, industry leaders and the press.

The Pentagon chief has been careful not to publicly criticize White House proposals, which made his remarks at the Reagan Forum all the more notable.

Trimming $33 billion from the Pentagon’s topline will not solve the problem of growing federal budget deficits, he said, adding that fiscal solvency and strategic solvency can “co-exist.”

“We all know here today that America can afford [what is required for] survival,” he said.

Mattis put current levels of military spending in historical context, stating that they were near historic lows in the post-World War II era as a share of both the federal budget and the national economy.

The United States is now in an era of great power competition with high-tech adversaries like China and Russia, he noted. Over the past two years, with major funding increases, the Defense Department has been addressing shortfalls in readiness and modernization. But that progress could fizzle, he warned.

“Thanks to President Trump and our Congress, we have begun to arrest the erosion of our competitive advantage. But without sustained, predictable funding the gains we’ve made will swiftly fade and our investments will never realize their full potential,” Mattis said.

The president’s budget request for 2020 is expected to be delivered to Congress in February. Trump has said that $700 billion will likely be the defense topline, but Mattis believes there is still a chance that the commander-in-chief can be persuaded to request more.

“This is the normal give and take of building the president’s budget, ladies and gentleman,” Mattis said during a Q&A session after his speech. “This is not a decision [that has already been made]. This is where the president is trying to sort out competing priorities, and … I would just tell you that the issue is in play. And I’ll give my advice to the president.”

Trump has touted his efforts to beef up the military as one of the major successes of his administration. He and other officials have argued that the force had atrophied in the years before he took office, and they have attacked Democrats for not being strong enough on defense issues.

“We’ve got to make certain we restore America’s strength,” Mattis said. “That has been President Trump’s platform from the beginning. It’s up to me to make the logical argument about what the president’s [budget] submission should look like,” he added.

However, while the White House makes fiscal recommendations, Congress ultimately has the power of the purse. Mattis made multiple references to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., which urged Trump not to cut $33 billion from what the Pentagon had been planning for.

Mattis suggested he hopes lawmakers would vote for a higher Pentagon topline if the Trump administration submits a budget blueprint that calls for less spending than previously expected.

“I share a responsibility with Congress that not just the next secretary of defense, but the secretary after next, has the military advantages necessary to deter conflict or win if we must fight,” he said. “The Congress under their constitutional responsibilities will take [defense officials’] input onboard. … I’m optimistic that at the end of day we’ll have what we need to keep our country safe.”

Topics: Budget, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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