The President’s desire to provide a ten percent increase in the Defense Department budget could devastate a number of human services and domestic programs. Unless Congress agrees to fund the increase through deficits, the $54 billion will create enormous pressure on the annual appropriations (discretionary spending) which totals only $1.1 trillion out of a federal budget of approximately $3.8 trillion. The defense increase would bring that budget to over $600 billion not counting the additional war funding that is provided through an annual Overseas Contingency Operating (OCO) fund.
Key children’s and child welfare spending have been starved over the past five years as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). To get such significant increases in defense spending President Trump will likely have to amend the Act, something he may only be able to do under standard rules meaning possibly no reconciliation. That would mean that he would need 60 Senate votes and bipartisan support. Some members of Congress, most prominently Senator John McCain (R-AZ), want an additional $50 billion for the Pentagon on top of the President’s request.
The Budget Control Act (BCA)
The 2011 BCA spending cuts were put into law for a ten-year period ending in 2021. It is not just a Congressional Budget rule that could normally be changed by Congress alone but it is a law that was signed by President Obama and agreed to by Congressional Republicans. For the most part it takes the $1.1 trillion that is considered discretionary or appropriated each year and splits it in half for defense spending and the other half for all the other appropriated spending–parity. It does not involve the entitlements which claim more than two-thirds of the overall federal budget. A key part of the budget law is that any increase or decrease is shared between defense and the rest of the discretionary spending. Some pro-defense spending members want to break this parity spending requirement.
It is unclear how President Trump will accomplish the increase of $54 billion for the Pentagon because it will likely (but not for certain) take 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster and change that law. To negotiate a bipartisan deal to get Democratic support he might be required also increase spending on the domestic side. Doing that might draw the ire of some more conservative Republican members of the Senate and the House.
Suggesting Big Cuts
The Administration is starting to drop not so subtle hints of their key spending targets: severe cuts in the State Department, a one-third cut in the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), severe cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), elimination or severe cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, National Service Corp, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and elimination of a Social Innovation Fund. These cuts may still not get President Trump the $54 million. Slashing the EPA by a third would reduce it to funding levels not seen since the Administration of George H.W. Bush but that would not be very much since the current total budget is about $8 billion. The elimination of the smaller programs garners around $1 billion. In addition, some Republicans have denounced the State Department cuts and the elimination of the Social Innovation Fund would throw cold water on Congress’s recent rhetoric around supporting “evidence-based” practices and research.
The Other Two Spending Bills
While all of Washington waits for the 2018 proposal which is expected on March 16, there are two other budgets to deal with: a supplemental for FY 2017 and the rest of FY 2017 funding which runs out with the continuing resolution (CR) on April 28. The supplemental will likely be labeled “emergency spending” thus not counting against Congress’s budget caps. It has been suggested this supplemental may total $30 billion with much of it for the Defense Department. It is also possible it could include funding for the US-Mexico wall. But if the supplemental includes funds for the wall, they likely won’t get any Democratic Senators and they will not be able to use reconciliation to avoid a filibuster.
For the rest of FY 2017, the House is planning on taking up a Defense Department appropriations this week. It too will be increased. Because of a deal worked out last year, the rest of 2017 is operating under a one-year deal that allowed some adjustment on the spending caps but that means some funding could be moved between the non-defense and defense spending. Funding for non-defense spending has been suffering cuts since 2011. This year’s cap was close to last year’s (2016) spending total. In addition, the non-defense side must absorb a pre-election agreement to provide a $3.5 billion increase in veterans affairs spending.