Big Defense Increase at Risk as Budget Talks Get Off to Slow Start

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By Nancy Ognanovich

A year-long effort to boost annual Pentagon spending by $70 billion or more is hanging in the balance as talks among congressional leaders of both parties and the White House aimed at a new budget deal proceed very slowly, lawmakers said.

While Congress this fall quickly signed off on more than $50 billion in “emergency” funds to handle a series of natural disasters, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have reported no progress in negotiating a new bipartisan agreement to increase regular funding for the Defense Department or other agencies, lawmakers said.

As House members departed for a 10-day break Oct. 12, there were only 24 workdays remaining until a measure funding the federal government runs out on Dec. 8. Even fewer work days—16—remain between when the House returns Oct. 23 and then leaves again for Thanksgiving and leaders should, lawmakers said, have a plan worked out so that key staff can write new versions of the 12 fiscal year 2018 bills over the holiday recess and have them ready for action in December.

“If we get the budget agreement, then it still will take some time to write the appropriations bills and negotiate to the correct numbers,” said House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who labeled the big increases for Defense and other security-related agencies in this year’s House-passed measures “fake” because they violate the current spending caps in the Budget Control Act.

Minus a deal, appropriators in both chambers will have to try to fund DOD and other agencies within a budget framework that actually cuts total spending by $5 billion. And such a spending plan is likely to meet with resistance in Congress and increase the chances lawmakers will either resort to a lengthy continuing resolution or face another government shutdown in December, lawmakers said.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, described discussions among leaders as preliminary but said a good result would be another bipartisan deal that eases the discretionary spending caps for at least two years’ time as was seen twice before.

“I think it would be better not to be going through this on the eve of an election a year from now,” Cole said.

$658 Billion in Funds at Risk

None of the 12 appropriations bills for the government’s new fiscal year that began Oct. 1 have been signed into law by President Donald Trump, and appropriators on both sides of the Capitol said they won’t be able to write and pass bills with a realistic chance of becoming law until they get a deal that gives them better spending levels.

The Senate Appropriations Committee wrote bills that reflect current spending and contain a mix of small increases, flat funding, and cuts—with its Defense allocation not spared in the process. But the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill (H.R. 3219) with a $658 billion Defense total—or a $68 billion hike over current spending. Similarly, the $88.8 billion Milcon-VA bill included in the package with Defense carried a $3.9 billion increase for Veterans Affairs programs.

But Dent said none of that has a chance to become law unless leadership jump-starts the budget talks.

“Everybody knows there will be a conversation on this,” Dent said. “Dec. 8 is coming, and the only questions are these:

  •  How high will Defense spending go?
  •  If we raise Defense spending by $1, then how much will we raise domestic spending?
  •  Will this be a one-year, two-year, or a three-year deal—or four or longer?
  •  If the [BCA] caps are broken, will non-Defense increase at the same rate as Defense or something else?
So these are the questions that have to be answered, and that conversation has to begin now.”

Cole said “it’s just too early to tell” if the end result will be another two-year deal that requires the increased discretionary spending to be offset with mandatory spending cuts. More desirable may be a longer deal that reduces the threat of regular spending showdowns during Trump’s tenure, he said.

“Frankly, if we could, it would be great to get—especially for the military—a three-year deal through the end of the Trump presidency,” Cole said.

What Does It Cost?

Aides said a $72 billion increase for the Pentagon translates into $144 billion over two years and $288 billion over four years. But, they said, $288 billion in mandatory program offsets will be difficult to find. And none of that, they said, reflects the increases Democrats want for non-defense programs.

A deal involving spending hikes at that level also will require the involvement of the Senate Finance and Agriculture committees and the House Ways and Means Committee, they said.

“Even if you got that type of agreement, it would take four to six weeks to negotiate an omnibus,” one aide said. “So you need that by early November.”

But Dent said right now the talks seem preliminary and it is yet to be revealed how Ryan and McConnell want to pay for the boost.

“That’s why the leaders get paid the big bucks,” Dent said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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