With legislators meeting recently at the White House and with President Trump at Camp David last weekend, it’s striking how little work seems to have been done on a defense budget deal even at this late date. Politico reported late last week that congressional leaders were meeting with White House officials to discuss a deal on the fiscal year 2018 budget. Previous negotiations, such as the Ryan-Murray deal to raise the Budget Control Act spending caps in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, were ongoing throughout 2013. The process was less pleasant for a similar bipartisan deal in 2015, but the proverbial “sausage-making” was still finished well before the year was out.
In my latest appearance on The Secure Line podcast, I mentioned that an overlooked story in defense circles in 2017 that will have consequences in 2018 is the lack of negotiations over the BCA spending caps. It’s not that the story has garnered no attention. But with the whirlwind of breaking news surrounding the president, there hasn’t been much bandwidth available for mundane matters like the defense budget.
However, a report in Government Executive this week laid out some of the factors complicating negotiations:
Negotiators also remain far apart over an array of separate issues such as funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, deciding the fate of the immigrant families in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and Trump’s demand for a southwestern border wall. Democrats, who have leverage because passage in the Senate requires 60 votes, want to protect domestic priorities.
Current caps restrict spending to $549 billion for defense and $516 billion for non-defense agencies in fiscal 2018. Republicans are seeking to raise the defense number, but Democrats are reluctant to go along without a comparable increase to domestic programs. If an agreement is not reached, the budget caps would be breached and sequestration would be triggered.
The inability to reach a deal will have consequences though. For one, there are long-term conventional and nuclear modernization programs looming. Short-term programs will also be affected. Quantitative reductions in purchases can increase per unit costs, while “stretch-outs” can make programs more expensive over the long haul.
At the same time, the administration has committed to a long term “imperial policing” mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Moreover, statements by Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, about the inability to deter a Kim regime in possession of nuclear weapons mean that a conflict with North Korea cannot be ruled out. While the cost of that hypothetical war in terms of lives should rightly garner most of the attention in the public debate, its financial cost would be staggering as well.
Of course, the administration could reconsider these conflicts in light of the budget situation. But with such a reevaluation unlikely, a budget deal would seem imperative.