The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) remains in conference committee. House and Senate negotiators are hashing out numerous important issues, from the possible creation of a Space Corps, to authorizations for planes, ships and troops. One thing they will not be talking about is how much to spend on national defense. That’s not because both House and Senate pretty much agree on the need for a $640 billion dollar base budget. (Although they certainly do.) The main reason they won’t be talking about defense spending is because neither House nor Senate has the political wherewithal to make the desired funding a reality.
Once again, the defense budget is being held hostage by the constraints imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). The BCA created caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending through the year 2021. These caps began with significant cuts to both discretionary areas, disproportionately affecting defense. And political wheeling and dealing between both parties has effectively tied increases in military spending to increases in domestic discretionary spending.
Defense experts almost universally acknowledge that the defense caps established by the BCA are well below the funding levels needed to meet our national security requirements. But those levels can’t be changed with less than 60 votes in the Senate. Given the political realities in the Senate, that will never happen unless the reform legislation provides for commensurate increases in non-defense spending. This state of affairs effectively holds military readiness hostage to increases in social programs within the larger federal budget discussion.
One under-discussed aspect of the defense budget is that both sides of the aisle generally agree on the need for a higher defense budget. The $640 billion defense budget contained within the NDAA exceeds the BCA caps by nearly $100 billion. Yet it was approved by wide, bipartisan margins in both the House (344-81) and the Senate (89-8).
Unfortunately, there is little consensus as to when the discussion will shift to the whole budget. One solution would be to create just one cap for discretionary spending, forcing lawmakers to actually make choices in the overall discretionary budget. Republicans and Democrats who agree on defense spending levels disagree vehemently on other priorities, be they health care, tax reform or pure prioritization of federal funds.
Both sides are waiting for the other to blink. Meanwhile, the deterioration of military readiness deepens. The poisoned waters of budget politics have effectively nullified the broad consensus on the need for higher defense spending. Members of the House and Senate have been unable to provide stability for the funding areas they agree on, leaving the defense of our nation and the welfare of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines at the mercy of temporary funding mechanisms.
To solve this, our lawmakers should first identify those budgetary areas where there is broad consensus and hammer out agreements for those areas. Clearly, defense is one of these areas. There is no reason to repeat the follies of previous years and not properly fund defense because a pet domestic program is not included in the budget. Lawmakers need to do their job. As controllers of the national purse strings, they have an obligation to prioritize the needs of the nation, and the requirement—constitutionally speaking—is to “provide for the common defense.”
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 11/02/2017