The military is once again poised receive a huge budgetary bump from President Trump, and the Democrats don’t seem interested in doing much about it.
Last week, reports emerged that Trump, while touting overall spending cuts “higher than any administration in history,” was planning to ask for a $750 billion defense budget — a $34 billion increase over last year’s request. This will put an end to years of what’s known as budget “parity,” or the idea that defense and non-defense funding should rise and fall together.
Last year, the Department of Defense failed to pass its first-ever audit. For this and other reasons, one would think that this would be a good time for Democrats to band together and prevent a raise in military spending, or even fight for cuts until the Pentagon can get its books in order.
That doesn’t seem to be in the works.
According to a Hill source, the Democrats are targeting a counter-offer above the $716 billion budget Trump asked for in 2018. In other words, the Democrats want to lower Trump’s number, but still give the Pentagon a raise.
“Even the opening number is going to be really high,” says the source.
Trump’s budget request represents a 5-percent increase overall. Budget analysts have said they expect the final number to be between last year’s $716 billion figure and $733 billion, the likely final number also quoted to Rolling Stone. A $733 billion defense budget number would represent a 2.4-percent increase, or about half of what Trump wants.
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Should the Democrats approve a $733 billion budget — remember, Trump’s $716 billion budget passed 85-10 in the Senate last year — it would break a record for the second consecutive year.
The irony of the hike in defense spending this year is that on paper, the so-called “base” defense-spending number is expected to drop significantly. The baseline defense number will go from $647 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $576 billion in 2020, a $71 billion decrease. These “cuts” will be offset by massive increases in what’s called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, sometimes called “war funding.” Technically these funds are only supposed to go to active combat operations.
In reality, however, OCO funding is mainly used as a means to increase military spending above caps designated by Congress. Thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress can only spend a certain percentage of overall appropriations on defense versus non-defense programs. In 2018, the cap was roughly 54 percent.
This year, Trump is seeking to use far less on non-defense spending, just $543 billion, versus $597 billion last year, a 9-percent cut. To get in line with the Budget Control Act, the most Trump can ask for as “base” spending for defense would be that $576 billion number.
Therefore, in order to raise the defense budget while slashing funds for everything else, both sides will have to get creative.
Last year, Trump asked for $69 billion in OCO money. This year, he’ll request $165 billion in OCO funding, despite the fact that we haven’t started any major new wars lately.
This is strictly a trick allowing Trump, and likely Congress, to increase defense spending while cutting everything else, despite laws in place designed to prevent exactly this situation.
A $750-billion budget would roughly equal the total spent by the next 15 highest-spending countries, a list that includes England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — none of which appear to pose much of a threat. Our military spending more than doubles that of our two most serious competitors, China ($224 billion) and Russia ($44 billion).
The Trump budget request includes $31 billion to “modernize” our nuclear triad, plus funding for an additional Virginia-class submarine and 78 F-35 jets from Lockheed-Martin at a cost of $11.2 billion. There is also a request for $7 billion in “emergency” funding for building whatever it is they’re calling Trump’s hare-brained wall plan these days.
The wall funding is likely to spur enough controversy that it will take a long time for the two sides to agree on a final numbers. But expect the Democrats to agree up-front to a large military increase, perhaps in conjunction with a deal for higher base non-defense spending levels in the name of “parity.”
Momentum toward endless raises for defense might be slowed if some of the more progressive new members of the House Democratic Caucus could get together and try to mount resistance in the lower chamber. So far, that effort hasn’t materialized.