The defense eagles are swooping again, trying to kill or maim the budget hawks, with the telling placement of an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal advocating increased defense spending by the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services committees.
Essentially, Republicans Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Mac Thornberry say to the White House and to the congressional budget hawks: Yes, budget deficits matter, but defense matters more — because of the degradation in readiness and lack of modernization the armed forces have suffered for more than a decade.
They call on President Trump “to move forward with the $733 billion budget he originally proposed for 2020. We cannot and should not balance our budget on the backs of America’s troops.”
The op-ed starts with the safe and predictable charge that pretty much everything bad was done by President Obama, though they concede that Congress may have made things a bit worse with the Budget Control Act and their inability to regularly fund the government, as the Constitution requires them to do.
Add the rising threats from China and Russia, who Inhofe and Thornberry say are “seeking to make the world safer for authoritarianism” and you’ve got an eroding US advantage “in key areas: power projection, cyberdefense, space, electronic warfare, air and missile defense, antisubmarine warfare, and long-range ground-based fires.”
What is to be done, now that President Trump has announced he wants to cut $33 billion from the $733 billion defense budget he had planned to request?
Inhofe and Thornberry state the choice clearly: “Next year the president and Congress face a critical national-security decision: Will we continue to rebuild our military, or will we squander our progress?” They argue the Pentagon “would be forced to cut in areas where the most money can be saved quickly—troops, new equipment, training and maintenance—as it did under sequestration in 2013. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be asked to find $33 billion, for example, by planning for lower troop levels, diminishing the U.S. capability to stay ahead of China and Russia, sacrificing readiness—or all three.”
That’s probably true. It’s the way budgets are usually readjusted, especially when there is very little time to rebuild them.
They offer the ritual nod that “there is money to be saved in the Pentagon.” Of course, that’s also an important part of what Congress is supposed to do — find that money using its oversight powers.
Their essential argument is found here: “But cutting defense will not close the deficit. The deficit would keep growing even if we eliminated the entire Pentagon budget. The president and Congress should not be duped into a false choice: rebuild our military or accept deep and growing deficits. This was a foolish argument when President Obama made it, and it hasn’t improved with age.”
My bet is that President Trump will assume Congress will restore most of what he “cuts” (it isn’t really a cut since he hasn’t formally requested it) and make the symbolic reduction to please his OMB director and his fellow budget hawks. The Democrats in the House will press for some more domestic spending to match the roughly $733 billion their Senate colleagues are likely to press ahead for, and the defense budget will end up closer to $733 billion than it does to $700 billion. This presumes, of course, that the bottom does not fall out of the American or Chinese economies.