Trump Touts Defense Buildup, But Numbers Fall Short

Trump Touts Defense Buildup, But Numbers Fall Short
Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP
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President Trump, visiting the soon-to-be-commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier Thursday, said the Navy “is going to soon be the largest it’s been” if Congress approves “one of the largest defense spending increases in history.”

The Virginia event, tied to the president’s Tuesday night address to a joint session of Congress and his request this week to lawmakers to appropriate $54 billion more for defense, was designed to spotlight Trump’s campaign vow to invest more in ships, aircraft and equipment to replenish a military he has described as depleted under President Obama. 

“We are going to have, very soon, the finest equipment in the world,” the president, who wore a Navy-issue cap and windbreaker, told an audience of naval officers and shipbuilders in Newport News.

Trump wants to increase defense spending by 10 percent, according to the White House, but some members of Congress and outside analysts who examined the available information believe the president has actually embraced one of the smallest increases in defense spending, or perhaps even a reduction, compared with his predecessors. 

“They’re dipping their toe in the water,” said Sean O’Keefe, a senior policy analyst with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security program. O’Keefe, a former active duty Air Force cost and budget analyst, published a chart showing that Trump’s opening bid for defense “is certainly not the biggest increase” requested by modern presidents.

President Reagan’s first full-year budget proposal called for a 10.4 percent hike in defense spending, while President George W. Bush’s first budget sought an increase of 9.4 percent at the Pentagon. Obama asked Congress to increase defense spending by 1.6 percent in his initial budget submission.

Trump, O’Keefe said, appears to be seeking either a small increase in percentage terms, or perhaps even a cut in spending compared with fiscal year 2017’s military spending.

It is not entirely clear why the administration is boasting of a Reagan-like buildup in defense, while sending Congress a request more modest than even GOP appropriators have demanded. It could be a “political opening move,” O’Keefe said, especially considering competing forces within his party, and the way in which Trump proposes to offset a defense hike with equivalent cuts to programs he frowns on, such as at the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.

Trump may be navigating between a new budget director who has a reputation as a deficit hawk and key House and Senate Republicans who want bigger investments at the Pentagon. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry advocate higher spending for defense than what the administration described this week.

“With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget. We can and must do better,” McCain said in a statement.

In the president’s first detailed budget proposal, to be sent to Capitol Hill in May, he will ask Congress to cut non-defense discretionary spending by $54 billion in fiscal year 2018, which begins in October. Those savings, Trump argues, should be shifted to military spending as a one-for-one swap that would not enlarge the deficit.

“The bottom line is this,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Monday. “The president is going to protect the country and do so in exactly the same way that every American family has had to do over the last couple years, and that's prioritize spending.” 

Describing the president’s request for defense discretionary spending, but without any programmatic details, Mulvaney said the request would be $603 billion for fiscal 2018. Trump wants to cut non-defense discretionary spending by an equivalent amount -- $54 billion -- to $462 billion.

But analysts note that the administration plans to present a supplemental Department of Defense spending request to Congress, likely between $20 billion and $30 billion, for fiscal 2017, to include resources for what officials describe as near-term readiness. Current military spending is $522 billion, plus the Pentagon is operating with $65 billion for additional wartime needs known as overseas contingency operations, which do not fall within current spending caps set by the budget constraints know as sequestration, created by both parties and signed by Obama as a fallback during partisan impasses over deficit spending.

Trump is asking Congress to lift the sequestration for defense spending on his watch. Democrats, by contrast, would like to eliminate sequestration throughout the federal budget, not just at the Pentagon.

In total, the military appropriations are $608 billion this year, but Trump appears to be asking for less -- $603 billion – in fiscal 2018. Mulvaney has not specified whether the president’s request for his first complete budget pulls the wartime spending back under the total Pentagon budget umbrella, as he advocated when he served as a Tea Party congressman from South Carolina and called it a “slush fund.”

The administration will send a final description of its spending requests to lawmakers in mid-March -- with details for each department -- and by early May a more complete budget showing revenue and tax details, entitlements, and economic projections.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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