Recent posture hearings on the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget prompted renewed debate about Congress’s power of the purse and whether the Department of Defense should be able to reprogram funds for uses other than the ones approved by legislators.
At the heart of the issue is DoD’s move to reprogram $1 billion toward the President’s proposed border wall expansion. The controversy surrounding that project masks a larger problem, which is that the U.S. budget process is corrupted by a political spoils system that smothers anything approaching strategy and stifles the flexibility needed to take care of troops and maintain the military’s technological advantages.
Here are a few examples of the current state of defense spending:
Democrats and fiscal conservatives are concerned about the Trump administration’s efforts to elude debate on raising defense versus non-defense budget caps by funding the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget to the tune of more than $165 billion. Past OCO levels have been more narrowly defined (to the extent that billion-dollar budgets can be narrowly defined) to a smaller set of expenses tied to current combat operations.
Huge and inexplicably unanticipated infrastructure costs associated with rebuilding military bases devastated by severe weather have become a political football for debates on climate change and the border wall (again). Meanwhile, hometown pols have knocked down any suggestion of base closures in their district, even if they lament the overall cost of the military’s footprint.
The decision to procure more F-15X fighters to replace the Air Force’s rapidly aging F-15Cs has sparked a lobbying war. House members urged DoD to increase its buy of more advanced F-35s, despite problems introduced by recent production surges and unresolved issues of sustainment costs. An Inspector General investigation into Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s ties to Boeing—his former employer and the manufacturer of the F-15X—have clouded DoD’s argument that the move sustains a stronger defense industrial base.
The Pentagon only began auditing its books in December 2017, with 14 of 21 accounts receiving a failing grade.
This is just a sliver of this year’s round of fiscal shenanigans, and there is plenty of blame to go around.
For its part, DoD rarely makes bold choices, much less choices that would balance the books while meeting the most important security needs. The department’s current focus on readiness is a good example of its strategic paralysis.
Confronted with the toll of more than two decades of continuous combat on U.S. forces and real threats posed by China, Russia, and other states, the military needs to be truly ready in two senses. First, it needs to focus on equipping and training existing forces for deterrence and larger-scale conflicts. Second, it needs to reshape its forces to deal with emerging challenges posed by more advanced adversaries—which means accepting risk elsewhere or ceding mission areas to other experts equipped to deal with those risks, like partner nations or law enforcement.
Instead, DoD’s emphasis on readiness—and the looser conception of lethality that is its constant companion these days—have translated into an expansion of weapons, forces, and organizations identified to deal with a wider range of perceived threats and opportunities. The result by accident or design seems to be more readiness dollars chasing new people, units and equipment that will drive new gaps in readiness.
Across the Potomac, politics have turned budgets into an annual exercise in abdicating responsibilities both fiscal and moral.
Since the current budget system went into effect in 1976, Congress has passed all required appropriations measures only four times: 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. As recently as the Clinton administration, government shutdowns still seemed to be a source of shame—a last-ditch rejection of any compromise or face-saving fudge with an option so nuclear that the other side was sure to blink first. In 2019, politicians who have hit rock bottom appear to have discovered that they like the solidity of the position, which they can maintain as long as their base is blaming someone else.
And so the beat goes on, and oversight dances a pirate’s jig. We need a Space Force because Republican Congressmen think it’s good for Alabama—a federal hand-out to a state that runs screaming from most other suggestions that the government might help citizens or communities in other ways. A Democratic Congressman can question the wisdom of rebuilding a hurricane-damaged base on the Gulf Coast, while vowing to protect a base in his district that a DoD report considers at equal or greater risk from climate change.
As much as this bipartisan buffoonery is warped by the fun-house mirrors of the Trump era, it is sadly quite enduring. A 1983 column in the New York Times lamented “what has long been a truism when it comes to military cuts: Cut if you must, but don't do it in my state.” Or to my political allies. Or to my service. Across the board, the guiding principle is to get yours when you can and hold on to it for dear life.
If defense stewardship and oversight are routinely twisted by NIMBYism, is there anything we can do to stop it? If a window to reason opened now or in the future, we could, by preserving a separation of powers on what matters—the purpose, size, and composition of forces—while limiting the ability of politicians to engineer very narrow choices benefitting their districts or the industries and services they favor.
The Center for a New American Security recently recommended Congress review independent operational concepts rather than combatant commands’ power-maximizing operational plans. A recent paper by the influential military blog Divergent Options identified two ways to avoid shutdowns resulting from confrontations between the White House and Congress: switching to biennial budgets, or having the President make a budget recommendation to Congress that becomes law without the executive’s signature.
Any of these steps would offer improvements on the current system. But none address the most corrosive effects of self-interest within Congress.
Following the latest shutdown, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center recommended adopting the New York State executive budget model, which requires more cooperation between branches of government. A working federal model
must eliminate the distinction between budgetary goals and appropriations bills; it must give the House the primary authority to establish an initial spending plan that the Senate can only amend and not replace; it must remove the Senate minority’s ability to filibuster any appropriations bill, as is the current practice in budget reconciliation bills; and it must afford the president an opportunity to delineate objections to specific provisions that do not endanger the entire package.
Any provision establishing a presidential line-item veto might seem to set an impossibly high bar for passage, since in 1998 the Supreme Court declared that authority unconstitutional barring an amendment. But it is possible that presidents could be given the power of rescission—sending each individual provision to be stripped from a bill back to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote.
Though this power would be tested early, over time presidents might learn to request rescission votes less frequently. Most provisions that reached the president’s desk would need to have the degree of bipartisan and bicameral support the model demands for passage, and Congress could be quick to rebuke any abuse of the process by overturning the president.
If this won’t work, then in the interest of our future security we need to find something that will. That starts with a recognition of political realities. Those who support more defense spending need to recognize that—in the absence of a more substantial, imminent threat—a majority of Americans will not accept the strain another Reaganesque build-up will place on their benefits or the country’s debt. Those who want to curb defense spending need to read the threat intelligence and understand the history of U.S. military budgets, which shows support for large increases in defense expenditures in war and only small fluctuations in annual budgets in times of sustained competition.
Whether working in concert or at cross purposes, successive presidential administrations, Congress, and DoD have conspired to strip the “common” out of the Constitution’s charge to provide for the common defense. There are plenty of things red and blue teams can refuse to compromise on in the interest of preventing any one group from breaking America’s political stalemate. National security is not one of those things.