July 5, 2017 | Policy Brief

House Hawks Look to Outbid Trump on Defense

July 5, 2017 | Policy Brief

House Hawks Look to Outbid Trump on Defense

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hinted in recent congressional testimony that President Trump’s budget proposal would not provide sufficient funding for the armed forces. “I’d be happy to see more money,” Mattis said, but “I have to represent the president’s budget.” As it turns out, the Republican majority in the House wants to give Mattis an extra $28.5 billion – or about 4 percent – over and above what Trump has asked for.

While members of House and Senate Armed Services Committees have long advocated for a reversal of sharp cuts to the defense budget, it is noteworthy that the speaker of the House and key committee chairmen also support the current plan to plus-up the budget. The new numbers are already reflected in the initial draft (or “mark”) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as well as the defense bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

The contrast between the president’s budget request and the House GOP plan reflects a disagreement over exactly when to begin the expansion of the U.S. military to meet the growth targets that Trump endorsed as a candidate. The targets themselves – including a 355-ship Navy and an Army with 540,000 soldiers – remain a point of consensus.

Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry and Sen. John McCain, announced that a $640 billion defense budget would be necessary to begin the expansion. In February, Trump raised expectations on the Hill by pledging that his first budget would include a “historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America.” Instead, the White House asked for $603 billion, a shortfall of $37 billion.

The lower figure requested by Trump still represents an increase of $54 billion compared to Barack Obama’s final request. Yet substantial new funding is necessary to restore the troops’ readiness to fight, as well as their equipment. For that reason, the White House request is not sufficient to increase the size of the Army or the rate at which the Navy purchases new ships.

In his recent testimony, Mattis acknowledged these facts and promised that the buildup would begin next year. House Republicans preferred not to wait, knowing that the first year of a new presidency creates a unique opportunity to challenge the status quo.

The new defense authorization and appropriations bills provide sufficient funding to add 10,000 active duty soldiers to the Army and purchase 13 new ships for the Navy instead of 9, as well as enabling numerous other steps toward expansion, such as the procurement of two dozen additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the most advanced combat aircraft available.

An important question that remains unanswered is whether it will be possible to increase spending on defense without adding to the deficit. The White House sought to address this challenge by proposing steep cuts to non-defense spending to offset the new costs, yet a bipartisan chorus on the Hill has labeled this approach “dead on arrival.” No alternative approach has emerged, yet without one, the proposed increase in defense spending may not become law.

The urgency of rebuilding the military remains clear, despite a lack of consensus on how to pay for it. Mattis testified that he was “shocked” when he returned from retirement and saw how the armed forces’ had lost their readiness to fight. He told Congress, “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.”

David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.