As the details of the Trump administration’s budget request trickle out in the coming weeks, President Trump is likely to tout it as a fulfillment of his promise to rebuild the military. And, on the surface, it’s easy to see why. The $750 billion top-line military-spending request represents the real 3 to 5 percent growth most defense experts believe is necessary to recover from the damaging effects of sequestration and meet the challenges outlined in the National Defense Strategy.
But as much as the administration’s top-line defense number matters, it’s also important to look beneath the surface at how it proposes to spend all that money. And viewed that way, the budget’s flaws become much more apparent.
The administration’s request relies on a number of work-arounds to reach the $750 billion that will allow President Trump and Pentagon leaders to make good on their commitment to rebuilding the military. The most obvious and egregious is an inflated budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, which is intended to fund warfighting needs. The president’s budget includes $174 billion for OCO, including $9 billion to cover shortfalls in military-construction funding created when President Trump declared a national emergency to fund the border wall.
The president’s request for the Fiscal Year 2020 base national-defense budget (essentially regular funding for the Pentagon and a few other agencies) is $576 billion. This request adheres to the sequestration cap imposed by the Budget Control Act, or BCA, which nearly every defense leader on both sides of the aisle agrees is far too low to ensure our national security.
Here’s why all of this budget math matters.
First, the president’s reliance on OCO misreads the politics of the budget process. Since the Constitution grants Congress the power of the purse, the administration’s budget request is essentially a messaging document — and the message this budget sends is not strong enough. Simply put, the president cannot claim to support rebuilding the military and submit a budget request that complies with the BCA sequestration caps. For all the grief Republicans gave the last administration over inadequate defense spending, even President Obama never submitted a budget request at sequestration levels.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree that they will have to come to a bipartisan compromise that raises the BCA sequestration caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending. This is especially true now that Democrats have the House majority. In those negotiations, strong leadership from the White House is critical to providing a solid starting point for negotiations, and this budget doesn’t cut it. Pretending to adhere to sequestration while stuffing $174 billion into the BCA-exempt OCO account harms Republicans’ negotiating position and only ensures that the president’s budget request will be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
That leads to the second way in which the president’s defense-budget request misses the mark: procedurally. While the OCO account has an important budgeting function, it has become a convenient but irresponsible way to skirt the constraints of the BCA sequestration caps for defense. Everyone from anti-war liberal Democrats to conservative Republican fiscal hawks has decried the reliance on OCO in the era of sequestration. And the administration’s FY2020 budget more than doubles the OCO request from recent years. The administration itself even admits that a full 60 percent of its OCO request — almost $100 billion — is actually for base Pentagon spending.
The problem is not just that OCO is widely regarded as having become a budget gimmick and an emblem of fiscal irresponsibility. Inflating the OCO account has real-world implications for our military: It limits flexibility and planning — two priorities that are integral to the way the Pentagon operates. What our military needs are adequate, stable, and sustainable resources — and that cannot be achieved by pumping up the OCO budget.
Finally, the president’s defense-budget request sends the wrong message on policy. The right way to do defense budgeting is to first assess the threats to our national security and then determine what is needed to meet those threats. To the administration’s credit, it started that process with the National Defense Strategy, or NDS, released last year. But this budget request does not line up with the policy priorities outlined in that document.
The NDS makes a clear prioritization of the threats we face. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” it says. The Pentagon’s top priority is now preparing for competition with China and Russia — not focusing on the Middle East. President Trump has been an advocate for this approach and gone much further, railing against “endless wars” in the Middle East and calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and potentially Afghanistan. Yet his budget request uses what is essentially a Middle East warfighting account (OCO used to be called the “Global War on Terrorism” account) to shelter nearly $100 billion of base defense spending. That just doesn’t square with the administration’s stated policy priorities.
If the administration actually believed that $174 billion belonged in the OCO account — if the president believed preparing for strategic competition with China and Russia was so important that it deserved wartime, emergency funding — it would be wise to say so and make an affirmative case for its position. But that is not how this budget is being presented. Rather, the OCO gimmick is being presented as no more or less than what it is. This was not a decision based on defense strategy; it seems more the work of the Office of Management and Budget than the National Security Council.
Yet these realities remain: Strategic competition is our top national-security concern, and China is our pacing threat. Last week, it was announced that China plans to increase its defense spending by 7.5 percent this year as part of a long military buildup. In the face of rising threats from strategic competitors, the United States must invest in reorienting our military and developing new capabilities. We would like to offer unequivocal support for the administration’s effort to boost the U.S. defense budget by the required 3 to 5 percent to help further that important goal — but the increase has to happen in the right way. Let’s hope Congress, which will dispose of the president’s budget request, does better.
Rachel Hoff is the policy director of the Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, D.C. Roger I. Zakheim is the Institute’s director and a former member of the National Defense Strategy Commission.