Defense Boost at Top of Trump Budget Wish List for 2018

By Jonathan Nicholson

President Donald Trump will attempt to follow through on his campaign promise to boost defense funding in his fiscal 2018 budget, his newly-installed budget chief said, even as political and practical hurdles to that goal remain.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told reporters the administration will send up its so-called topline budget numbers—outlining overall discretionary funding levels for 2018, broken down by defense and non-defense categories—in mid-March. At a White House press briefing Feb. 27, Mulvaney said the administration will propose boosting defense funding by $54 billion and cutting non-defense funding by the same amount.

The figures Mulvaney laid out will put the existing budget firewall between defense and non-defense funding at the top of the budget fight in Congress and likely put Democrats on the political defensive as they seek to protect social programs from being cut to provide more money for the Pentagon.

“it is a true America-first budget. It will show the president is keeping his promises and doing exactly what he said he was going to do when he ran for office,” Mulvaney said. “It prioritized rebuilding the military, including restoring our nuclear capabilities, protecting the nation and securing the border, enforcing the laws currently on the books, taking care of vets and increasing school choice.”

FY 2018 Total: $1.065 Trillion

For fiscal 2018, Mulvaney said the administration will ask for approximately $1.065 trillion in regular non-emergency discretionary funding. That would be a small decline from the $1.070 trillion funding level the government is operating under for fiscal 2017 under a stopgap bill that expires April 28. It would also be the maximum level of combined defense and non-defense funding allowed under the 2011 Budget Control Act (Pub. L. No. 112-25).

That law, though, has separate caps for defense funding, mainly the Pentagon and the nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and non-defense funding, which includes all other discretionary monies.

In recent years, the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House agreed to boost both categories rather than abide by the caps. Under Mulvaney’s proposal, however, defense funding would be raised by $54 billion above the 2018 BCA cap level, bringing it to $603 billion. The non-defense funding level would be $54 billion below its BCA cap level to offset the increase, at $462 billion.

But without a change in the BCA, the increased funding for defense would be undone by across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration put in place to enforce the cap. Changing the defense cap would require Democratic cooperation in the Senate, an unlikely prospect given their past stance that any cap easing should be done on equal basis between defense and non-defense.

Frelinghuysen: Regular Process

Senate Democratic Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement was critical of the idea, saying the cuts required in non-defense funding would be too deep.

“A cut this steep almost certainly means cuts to agencies that protect consumers from Wall Street excess and protect clean air and water,” he said. “Most Americans didn’t vote to ease up on polluters, or to give Wall Street the green light to rip them off. They certainly didn’t vote to make all these cuts so that President Trump can hand out a tax break to the wealthiest Americans.”

Those cuts could also face backlash from non-defense appropriators on both sides of the aisle. A spokeswoman for Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said, “The Chairman strongly agrees that more investment in our national defense is needed, and that all federal programs should be reviewed as to their worth and value. As always, the power of the purse lies with Congress, and any budget decisions will go through the regular budget and appropriations process.”

“Enacting appropriations law—as opposed to proposing nonbinding budget resolutions—will likely require Democratic votes, just as it did in the 114th Congress when the Republican majorities were larger in both chambers of Congress,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) , the ranking Democrat on Frelinghuysen’s panel. “Democrats will not help pass laws that shift more economic burdens onto hardworking American families.”

Even adopting a budget resolution with the bigger defense split could be problematic. A parliamentary point of order exists in the Senate barring consideration of legislation, including concurrent budget resolutions like the budget, that would cause discretionary spending limits to be breached. Waiving that 60-vote point of order would require Democratic votes.

Full Budget in May

Mulvaney said the discretionary numbers would be sent to Congress by March 16, while the full budget—including any proposals on overhauling the tax system, mandatory spending and infrastructure funding—will be sent in the “first part of May.”

The budget could take a back seat to other Republican priorities, though. In March, a supplemental bill to boost fiscal 2017 funding for the Pentagon and begin construction on a border wall is expected to come to Capitol Hill and lawmakers will likely spend much of April trying to write a funding bill to replace the temporary stopgap bill that expires April 28.

A House GOP aide said the House Republican budget was expected to be introduced in late March or early April, though the timing was not completely settled. In the Senate, Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said Feb. 17 “everything’s up in the air” in terms of how soon his panel would mark up a fiscal 2018 budget resolution.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

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

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