WASHINGTON — With six months before the first budget deadline, it may be already time to panic.
Lawmakers’ worries the budget fight between President Donald Trump and Democrats will cause a deadlock were on full display this week. If the two sides can’t reach a deal to ease statutory budget caps, a stopgap continuing resolution, or CR, could freeze the Pentagon’s budget at last year’s level, or leave the department in a worse state — automatic sequestration cuts could slash its budget by $71 billion.
After Congress’ spring recess, Democrats and Republicans must quickly work to settle sharp disagreements over spending for the Pentagon, domestic programs and the president’s wall at the southern border. They have until Oct. 1 to avoid a continuing resolution and until January to avoid sequestration.
Republican lawmakers have been using budget hearings to warn that unless negotiations get into high gear, there’s potential to erase the military readiness gains enabled by the last two years of strong defense budgets. While common at this point in the budget cycle, the potential audiences for that message this time around will range from left-leaning Democrats to the White House.
Earlier this month, Politico reported that the White House wants to boost its leverage in the high-stakes talks with Democrats and Senate Republicans by delaying negotiations until after both the 2019 budget and the debt ceiling expire at the end of September. That suggests the fiscal year will start on a CR.
Because the already high chances of an impasse over funding for the president’s border wall increase in proximity to 2020 electoral politics, it’s possible lawmakers will abandon negotiations for easing spending caps and punt to a full-year continuing resolution, said Rick Berger, a former Senate Budget Committee staffer with the American Enterprise Institute.
“From the perspective of the Senate GOP, this is not a good idea because the longer we go without a deal, the higher the chance that everybody throws up their hands and just takes a full-year CR,” Berger said. “This then goes from ‘how do we thread the needle on a caps deal’ to ‘how do we blame the hell out of each other for the 2020 race.’ Once that momentum gathers, it’s going to be really hard to stop.”
At an April 4 budget hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., asked Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to outline the impact of sequestration on her service, if there’s no deal. She said the resulting $29 billion cut would be “absolutely devastating in scope and scale.”
“That would be no F-35s, cut all of the KC-46s, stop the B-21 program, no ground-based strategic deterrent, no research, development, test and evaluation for any space system, most of the fourth- and fifth-generation [fighter jet] modifications, and all of science and technology,” she said. “Or, $29 billion means all of weapons systems sustainment, all flying hours, all base operations and airfield support, and all munitions, together, make $29 billion.”
In the same vein, AirLand Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., prompted the Air Force’s chief, Gen. David Goldfein, to spell out how a full-year continuing resolution would do much the same thing.
“Sequester would be the worst thing, but it’s hard to imagine we’d go back to the actual sequester levels. But a proposal that’s being batted around — a full-year continuing resolution — is almost the worst thing imaginable?” Cotton asked, to which Goldfein replied: “Yes, sir.”
One significant and positive sign this week is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced this week that talks have begun at the staff level. The impact of those talks is unclear for now.
House Democrats failed to pass a 2020 spending plan this week amid internal divisions, but they did pass a measure that sets the overall spending cap at $1.3 trillion for 2020, about a $350 billion increase from 2019. That in turn allows House appropriators to begin drafting their 2020 spending bills.
The House bill that was scuttled Tuesday aimed to reset spending limits for defense at $733 billion for fiscal 2020 and $749 billion for fiscal 2020. The nondefense side of the budget also would come in well-above statutory budget caps, at $631 billion and $646 billion, respectively.
Progressive Democrats balked because the defense side was too high and the nondefense side was too low. Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., may use the coming weeks to sway her members, and if that fails, to team with Republican leaders — just as former GOP House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan had to team with Pelosi to pass bills their Tea Party wing wouldn’t accept.
“I don’t participate in the German word ‘Schadenfreude,’ taking delight in other people’s misery, but these things can become miserable,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a member of the Appropriations Committee, told the Washington Examiner. “Shoe’s on the other foot.”
In spite of the fears on display in Congress, Center for Strategic and International Studies defense budget analyst Todd Harrison was skeptical Washington would stumble into a full-year CR — “It’s never happened because it’s impractical” — much less a sequester, which happened once, in 2013.
“Democrats don’t want a sequester either because if it gets triggered, you’re talking massive cuts to nondefense programs as well as defense programs,” Harrison said.
After border wall funding is subtracted from the defense budget, it’s about $742 billion, which is less than a 1% difference from the president’s budget request and theoretically an easy gap to bridge. “So why would anyone let the budget caps stay where they are and sequester be triggered?” Harrison asked.
Indeed, why are lawmakers even bringing it up?
“Old habits die hard,” Harrison said. “What folks have become accustomed to doing with these hearings is saying: ‘We have to scare everyone about sequestration,’ right? ‘Scare everyone about a full-year CR.’ ”
In a roundtable with reporters, the House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he believes Congress has a center mass that wants a strong defense budget. The nightmare scenarios can’t be ruled out given the last few years of dysfunction, but they’re unlikely.
“Both parties have a political interest in continuing to make the progress that we’ve begun to make on readiness and other things,” Thornberry said. “Even though there’s some fringe elements in both parties, the mass of both parties know that both of us have a responsibility to help defend the country as the Constitution requires us to do.”
If the resistance is in the White House, it can be overcome, but Congress must unify on a spending deal.
“Obviously the president can sign it or not, but I think you can have a genuine bipartisan effort in the Capitol that would result in a very strong vote,” Thornberry said. “That would send a strong message to the president. That’s our job. We ought to do it.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.