The $700 billion defense policy bill passed by Congress this month, which President Trump touted as an historic hike, hands the military a lengthy shopping list of aircraft, ships, and troops.
But the Pentagon is not calling contractors and recruiters quite yet. The Defense Department has not been given the money to pay for the purchases, and it may not even get all the money it needs to pay for the new hardware and personnel.
Congress is still weeks or months away from a deal to fund the National Defense Authorization Act and raise a 2018 defense spending cap that threatens to cut more than $80 billion from the legislation, said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think the odds are good that whatever budget deal they get to change the budget caps is not going to go all the way up to the level that is implied by the NDAA,” Harrison said.
Defense hawks led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, fought for months to get the NDAA and its $634 billion in base defense spending through Congress. Another $66 billion in the NDAA for overseas military operations is exempt from the 2018 spending cap.
It increases Trump’s $603 billion base request by adding 20 Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighters, 10 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet jets, five Navy ships, and 8,500 soldiers.
But the Budget Control Act cap limits such spending to just $549 billion, which is $85 billion shy of the $634 billion Congress is trying to authorize.
Harrison said any appropriations deal to lift the cap is likely to allow about $600 billion, just at or below what the president requested in May.
“Often what happens when there is a gap between the NDAA and the appropriations … you may have been authorized to buy 20 more F-35s but you only got appropriations to buy, pick a number, five more, or 10 more,” he said.
Lawmakers could try to reduce any gap between the McCain and Thornberry NDAA priorities and a lower spending limit by putting money into the overseas contingency operations account, or OCO, which is exempt from the cap. The OCO has long been criticized as a slush fund and increasingly used for daily base budget needs rather than emergency war spending.
The Senate Appropriations Committee released a $651 billion defense appropriations proposal on Tuesday that would pare funding for aircraft, ships and troops in the annual defense authorization bill. The proposal would cut funding for 12 F-35 joint strike fighters, four Navy ships and 10,800 service members.
For now, that appropriations proposal is just a marker as leadership in the House and Senate work toward a larger budget deal.
Congress will likely have to go back and cut the NDAA once a deal on a top-line spending is decided, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The NDAA is required to match spending legislation, and such changes are not unusual, Eaglen said.
“They already have options presented to the members of what we’re going to take out if the number comes in at this number, if it comes in at that number, if it comes in at that number,” she said. “The staffs have certainly done all the legwork.”
An obvious place to start cutting is the military hardware that McCain and Thornberry added to the president’s budget request, she said.
The NDAA incorporated much of the $32 billion in so-called unfunded priorities released by the services this year. The wish lists include items the military would like but did not budget, including more F-35s, Super Hornets, Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, and Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft.
“A lot of the stuff they added came from the unfunded and most of the unfunded is based on modernization, meaning equipment,” Eaglen said. “What is the last in and first to go? … When you have to reduce your NDAA top line, it’s that.”
The Army had also included 17,000 additional soldiers in its unfunded priorities and the NDAA calls for 8,500. Trump’s budget included zero growth in the size of the service.
Meanwhile, pressure has been building on Capitol Hill for a budget deal amid talks between Republican and Democratic leadership in both chambers.
McCain and Thornberry released a joint statement Nov. 17 calling for the $700 billion NDAA to be fully funded, citing overwhelming votes in the Senate and House in favor of the legislation.
“We have to get up to the number that we are authorizing and they [leadership] are saying they will do that and we will see,” McCain told the Washington Examiner.
But lawmakers have been consumed by the Republican tax reform push for weeks. That has stymied the work on lifting the BCA caps and passing defense appropriations. For years, Democrats have insisted that any increase to defense spending be matched dollar-for-dollar with spending hikes in non-defense accounts.
Congress is now poised to pass another stopgap budget measure to buy more time, despite deep opposition to the move from the Pentagon. The current continuing resolution, or CR, Congress passed in September has kept the lights on in the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government. That expires Dec. 8.
The continuing resolution blocks the Pentagon from starting new programs and thwarts longterm planning. An expected new CR next month will likely last two weeks to two months as lawmakers scramble, Harrison and Eaglen said.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the Appropriations Committee chairman, urged leadership to “redouble their efforts” at a deal on Nov. 16, saying he planned to release a so-called chairman’s mark defense appropriations bill without the usual committee hearing first.
“We need a new budget deal to finish our work. Congress and the administration must reach agreement on acceptable top-line funding levels for defense and non-defense programs,” Cochran said in a statement. “At the funding cap currently in law, the Appropriations Committee would be hard-pressed to write a 2018 defense bill that fully meets our national security needs or reflects the priorities of the Senate.”