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Trump's win doesn't instantly solve defense budget problems, analysts warn

January 23, 2017 (Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Defense advocates have been hopeful that President Donald Trump’s election will mean big boosts in military spending in years to come, but on Monday prominent analysts said those thoughts may just be dreams.

“This is not Christmas in July,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “All the fights (on the defense budget) are the same as before, it’s just the actors that are different.”

The comments came as part of a Center for Strategic and International Studies event looking at expected defense funding changes in the next administration, and whether Trump’s campaign promises appear realistic.

For now, they’re skeptical.

In the first hours of Trump’s presidency, on the new White House website officials posted promises to “end the defense sequester and submit a new budget to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild our military.” This echoes Trump’s past comments about boosting defense spending without increasing the national debt.

But even though Republicans control the White House and Congress, they’ll still need Democrats to agree in order to make those changes in the federal spending caps, noted Richard Kogan, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Legislation to lift caps on defense spending will require 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans only hold 52 seats. Democratic leaders have thus far refused to increase money for military programs unless the increases are included for other non-defense programs, something that conservatives on Capitol Hill have opposed.

Even if Democrats were to agree to a plan, it is unclear if enough Republicans would back a plan that would produce significant new debt for the federal budget.

Mark Cancian, senior adviser for CSIS’s International Security Program, called Trump’s promises to offset new equipment and personnel spending with “management efficiencies” all but impossible. More likely, it will mean cuts in some personnel and programs to pay for others, or a significant increase in debt.

And it’s unclear if defense spending can be a top priority of the new administration in the near future.

Eaglen, who met with Trump’s campaign and transition officials on several occasions, noted that Trump’s team needs to deal with a fiscal 2017 budget bridge for the entire government no later than April, along with a possible Supreme Court nomination — both will take a lot of political capital and time for the new White House.

“There is a great desire to be bold and get a lot done,” she said. “But there are a lot of clashes already coming.”

Barring a spending caps fix in the next few months, Congress will start planning fiscal 2018 with the assumption that those funding limits will stay in place. This will put a check on Trump’s promises to boost Army and Marine Corps end strength, build more Navy ships and grow the Air Force’s aircraft fleet.

“My advice would be don’t spend any money before you’ve got it,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis for CSIS. “We just don’t know how this is going to play out.”


   
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.
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