WASHINGTON: Is 13 the Navy’s lucky number? That’s how many ships the House Armed Service Committee wants to buy in 2018, five more than President Trump requested, the seapower subcommittee announced this afternoon. The problem: no one knows where the money’s coming from.
The increase is part of a bipartisan push towards the 355-ship fleet the Navy says it needs to counter China, Russia, and other threats, a fleet the Navy itself says it can’t begin to build under Trump’s current budget plans.
HASC wants to add a destroyer, an amphibious ship, an Expeditionary Support Base vessel, and two Littoral Combat Ships to the Trump budget’s request for eight. (After rolling out the budget, the administration promised to add a ninth ship — an additional Littoral Combat Ship — but how they plan to fund that ship also remains unclear).
“It takes the necessary first big step down the road of getting to 355,” said House seapower chairman Rob Wittman this morning. “We can’t get there overnight,” he added, noting a Congressional Budget Office estimate it will tale 20-to-25 years.
This year, though, the great unanswered question is how to pay for those extra ships — or whether they can be bought at all. The ranking Democrat on the seapower subcommittee, Rep. Joe Courtney, told me frankly yesterday he’s never seen so much uncertainty about what the final budget will be.
“Not having a Budget Committee report out, even a suggestion” — he laughed — “is unprecedented in my time,” said Courtney, who’s been in Congress since 2007. “The (GOP-led) Budget Committee has not given us a number to mark towards.”
Nor is there clarity from the House Appropriations Committee, the final authority which writes (or refuses to write) the checks for programs other committees authorizes, Courtney said: “Every time I talk to the (appropriations) members to find out what they’re marking to, it’s still very fluid.”
“The committee is marking towards a much larger number than $603 billion,” the amount Trump requested for defense, said Courtney. That said, he continued, “I think everyone understands (that HASC number) is not written in granite…. It’s not the final word.”
Both House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry and his Senate counterpart, John McCain, have said Trump’s $603 billion defense budget was inadequate from the beginning. (UPDATED: On Thursday afternoon, Thornberry told reporters his committee would mark up a bill for $640 billion in base-budget spending).
Besides the 13 ships to be bought in 2018, the draft bill also includes also Advance Procurement (AP) to put down payments on aircraft carriers and attack submarines to be bought in subsequent years. Finally, the HASC mark authorizes multi-year block buys of up to 13 submarines and 15 destroyers over the next five years, as opposed to the original plan for 10 of each. Buying vessels wholesale this way should save 15 percent, the committee says.
How much this will all cost won’t be revealed until the committee publishes detailed tables tomorrow, but it’s clearly in the billions.
Show Me The Money
“To pay for that, you’re going to go above Trump’s initial submission and that is contingent on a resolution on the overall budget,” Courtney told me. “Those programs are going to have to sweat it out until we get to some final direction from the appropriators. It’s going to come down to leadership….or we’re going to end up with a CR which doesn’t allow any of that to happen.”
(A Continuing Resolution is a stopgap funding measure passed in lieu of regular appropriations bills, which essentially tells government agencies to keep spending whatever they spent last year — with no leeway to ramp up new programs or cut back bad ones. CRs have become routine in recent years, often lasting months on end).
Ultimately, Congress needs to confront the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, aka sequestration, either by repealing the BCA altogether — unlikely — or amending the caps for the next couple of years — as has already happened twice.
“It is possible,” Courtney said of a deal to lift the caps. “It’s going to be hard, (and) I wouldn’t put my house and car on it” — he laughed nervously — “but I don’t think it’s beyond imagination at this point that they’re going to have to figure out a way to lift the caps.”
Courtney means specifically lifting the caps on both defense and domestic spending by roughly equal amounts, which has been the Democratic position for years and was reflected in previous budget deals. “I don’t see any other way out,” Courtney said: The Trump budget’s alternative, offsetting every dollar added to defense with a dollar cut from domestic programs, is dead on arrival even for Republicans. “The notion that $603 billion is going to be paid for by a massive reduction in domestic spending has already gotten thumbs down from Republican appropriators,” he said, “and that’s going to create pressure on leadership.”
As defense hawks and budget hawks negotiate, however, there’ll also be pressure to dial down defense to something below what HASC wants, while still above Trump’s $603 billion. What might that compromise figure be?
“I don’t want to bargain against myself or get too ahead of the process,” Courtney said, “(but) there’s going to be an ability to adjust if and when the time comes, (to ensure) that a final number is calculated that still preserves a lot of the growth in ships that our mark contains…. We’re just going to have to be smart about making adjustments.”
Where the final number lands is still up in the air, Courtney acknowledged, but there’s growing consensus in both parties for building towards the 355-ship fleet outlined in the Navy’s official Force Structure Assessment. “The mark is really responding to the FSA and to (Acting Navy Secretary Sean) Stackley’s accelerated shipbuilding plan,” Courtney said.
Just this morning, House seapower chairman Wittman, and his Senate counterpart, Roger Wicker, introduced a bill that would make the 355 figure an official policy objective. Wicker proudly noted all the members of the Senate seapower subcommittee, Republicans and Democrats, are already aboard as co-sponsors. Courtney is a co-sponsor of the House version.
Officially known as the SHIPS Act (an acronym too contrived to deserve explanation), the Wicker-Wittman bill is hardly a binding fiscal commitment. It merely states “It shall be the policy of the United States to have available, as soon as practicable, not fewer than 355 battle force ships, comprised of the optimal mix of platforms, with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriation and the annual appropriation of funds.” (Emphasis ours). Nevertheless, the bill is a significant symbolic statement.
Wittman, of course, has proposed a specific fiscal commitment in his 13-ship bill. Wicker has promised to “help” Trump towards a bigger fleet as well. “It starts with repealing sequestration,” Wicker said this morning. “If you’re going to meet the threat, then we’re going to have to pay for this.”
Wicker will reveal his specific proposal with the rest of the Senate mark next week. Then the House and Senate bills must pass their respective chambers, be reconciled in Congress, and finally matched with actual spending commitments from the appropriators.
“Where it shakes out at the end of the day, I don’t think anybody can possibly predict with any certainty, (but) we are going to see bipartisan support for boosting the size of the fleet and boosting the overall size of the defense budget,” Courtney said. “The policy/strategic argument in terms of boosting the size of the fleet is winning.”