As Inauguration Day looms, it's up to members of the armed services committees to begin making the case for President-elect Trump on Capitol Hill that the Budget Control Act has been bad for defense.
The incoming president promised on the campaign trail to work with Congress to fully undo the Budget Control Act for defense and boost spending on the military to fund a broad build-up, including more ships, more active-duty troops and more aircraft.
But now that the election is over, it's time for lawmakers on the House and Senate Armed Services Committee to serve as envoys to other members of Congress to explain why it's so important for defense spending to increase.
"I think the biggest piece of business for the SASC this year is to make the case for increased defense funding," said Tom Spoehr, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. "SASC's influence, especially on fellow members, is going to be key to setting that new defense number where it needs to be in order to enable Trump's rebuilding."
The sequester was meant to be so bad that no one would actually let it go into effect, thereby incentivizing Congress to reach a deal on entitlement and tax reform. The spending cuts are set to come back in full force in fiscal 2018 after two recent two-year budget deals provided some relief for both defense and non-defense spending.
Some experts have suggested that a high degree of turnover in the relevant committees partially led to the Budget Control Act's passage in 2011, because those lawmakers who would have had the required gravitas with their peers to detail the harm the cuts would cause to defense were no longer there. But Spoehr said that, despite the turnover that naturally comes with an election year, current members of the armed services committees, as well as long-serving staffers, are prepared to make the argument to their colleagues that the Budget Control Act hurts national security.
Despite most in Congress agreeing that the Budget Control Act is a bad way to budget, lawmakers have previously been unable to repeal the law.
Spoehr, however, believes this year is different because of both Trump's election and growing threats around the world, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the rise of a new leader in North Korea who has "gone off the deep end."
"I think there is a growing bipartisan realization that military has been cut too far, especially given all the failed assumptions we were living with five years ago," he said.
Still, some say a permanent solution to the Budget Control Act is unlikely this Congress. Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said it's more likely we'll see a four-year budget deal, similar to the two-year deals of the past, that provides relief from the cuts to both defense and non-defense spending.
If Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill fail to secure the budget boost they're seeking, it could boil down to a gridiron rematch of Army vs. Navy, O'Hanlon said. The Army has said that it's undermanned and wants to grow to 540,000 active-duty soldiers, while the Navy just released a plan stating that it needs 355 ships. O'Hanlon said he suspects the armed services committees will provide some relief to both services rather than a "winner takes all" approach, but warned that the two services could be battling it out for resources in Congress.
As if that's not enough on its plate, the Senate Armed Services Committee will need to confirm the dozens of political appointees at the Pentagon. Spoehr said he expects the remaining bandwidth on the committee's schedule to be consumed by cybersecurity.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., promised a series of cyber-focused hearings this Congress, including the first last week that largely focused on Russian hacking of the U.S. election.