Congressional Republicans trying to boost military spending by tens of billions of dollars face a major problem: Their efforts would run afoul of the law.
Bills moving in the House and Senate would go beyond even the defense buildup pledged by President Donald Trump, providing money for more soldiers, fighter jets, warships and missile defenses than the Pentagon had requested.
But those proposals exceed the limits imposed by a 2011 budget law, demanded by Republican budget hawks, that caps spending and requires annual across-the-board cuts to rein in deficits. And that makes the defense budget yet another example of the internal GOP policy divides that have also stymied the party on major issues like health care.
Some lawmakers fear Congress is heading toward a "disaster" or "train wreck" on defense spending — with no obvious pathway ahead to lift the caps.
"If you use the painting-yourself-into-a-corner analogy, they’re not talking about how to get out of the corner," said Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "They’re talking about how much more floor space to paint."
Lifting the Budget Control Act’s caps for defense spending would require the consent of Democrats, who insist that any such hike be accompanied by increased domestic spending — a no-go for GOP budget hawks. Or lawmakers could stash the extra military funding into the Pentagon’s separate war account, as Congress has done repeatedly in the past six years. But that could run into trouble with Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who has taken a hard line against the broad use of funds designated as directly supporting overseas military operations.
For the coming fiscal year, national defense programs are allotted just $549 billion under the 2011 budget law, not including separate war costs. That is well below the $621.5 billion in defense spending approved earlier this month by the House and $632 billion approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We haven’t seen this much of a discrepancy between what the committees are marking to and what the BCA cap is since the BCA was first enacted," said budget analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And so that means that that is creating tremendous uncertainty in the system."
Defense budget advocates in the House, led by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), want House Speaker Paul Ryan to hold a vote on legislation eliminating the defense caps. The Ohio Republican organized a letter with 141 Republicans to Ryan in May to demonstrate support from the "majority of the majority" for such a vote, which Turner argues would also force the Senate into action.
"I think that leadership thinks this is going to be part of a whole settlement package with the Senate," said Turner, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "But I think we should move forward putting a stake and the ground and saying we’re for repealing sequestration on national security, we have the votes, the Senate needs to take action."
The offices of Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to requests for comment on possible legislative action.
"They still cannot deal with anything until it’s right in front of their face," commented one defense lobbyist, who requested anonymity to speak critically of the budget situation.
Under the budget caps, defense spending would actually be cut next year, decreasing from $551 billion to $549 billion. Defense spending would then increase by just over 2 percent per year, topping out at $590 billion in fiscal 2021.The spending limits extend through the end of Trump’s current term in 2021.
Trump campaigned on launching a massive military buildup, including growing the Army to 540,000 active duty soldiers and building a 355-ship Navy. The move is backed by congressional Republicans, who want to turn the page on the Obama administration, which they argue allowed the military to become too small to meet growing worldwide threats.
Trump’s budget request totaled $603 billion, a hefty $54 billion above the cap.
But defense hawks, including Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), contend Trump’s proposal isn’t enough to make good on his own campaign pledge. GOP lawmakers noted that the proposal was only a 3 percent increase above what the Obama administration had projected in its final budget submission.
So instead, House lawmakers settled on $621.5 billion in national defense spending — which includes the Pentagon’s main budget and nuclear weapons programs under the Department of Energy. The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $632 billion.
The extra money would fund a variety of items the military services didn’t formally request in their budgets, including more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet jets, more active-duty and reserve troops in the Army, a major boost in Navy shipbuilding and a higher military pay raise.
Only the Senate Appropriations Committee, in its version of the Defense Appropriations Act, has recommended spending close to the budget caps. The panel approved a defense topline of $551 billion Thursday, equal to the current fiscal year.
The likeliest way around the budget caps is also likely to stoke division.
Both McCain and Thornberry have left open the possibility of tapping the Pentagon’s separate war budget, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, to increase defense spending for the coming year. The special account isn’t capped by the Budget Control Act.
"We don’t really have to do anything on the BCA," Thornberry explained. "We could put it all into OCO, which is what we’ve done before."
"It’s not good," he added. "I’m just saying technically you don’t have to do something."
But boosting the war account by such a large amount could run afoul of OMB.
A so-called statement of administration policy recently issued by OMB criticized the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act, which allocates $10 billion in war funds to supplement the Pentagon’s main budget. The White House also urged lawmakers to cut spending elsewhere in the federal budget to make up for the bill’s $18.5 billion increase in base defense spending over the president’s budget request.
The House passed its version of the annual defense policy bill on July 14 in a wide vote and is expected to take up defense appropriations legislation this week as part of a broader package of security spending bills. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the bill last month, but the timetable is unclear after McCain announced he was diagnosed with brain cancer and has been away from Washington.
Senate appropriators, unlike their House counterparts, have yet to mark up a defense spending bill.
Many lawmakers remain pessimistic at the prospect of a broad budget deal at the outset of the new fiscal year in October.
Both chambers have been swamped with GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare, overhaul the tax code and confirm key members of Trump’s administration. And rewriting the budget law is likely to take a back seat to preventing a government shutdown and a debt default when Congress returns from its summer break in September.
"From January until today, it’s all been healthcare. We’re running out of time," said Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to deal with debt ceiling. We’ve got to deal with the next budget, and they’re talking about tax reform. Somewhere in there we’ve got to get the BCA modified or eliminated."
For Turner, a resolution to the defense spending caps is needed "to fix what’s going to be a train wreck if we don’t get this done."