Festooned with American flags, President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act into law on Tuesday. The final product, a 646-page bill negotiated over a period of months between House and Senate lawmakers, authorizes nearly $700 billion for Pentagon operations. President Trump hailed the bill in a signing ceremony as the beginning of a military build-up that he promised during the campaign. “Now,” Trump declared, "Congress must finish the job by eliminating the defense sequester and passing a clean appropriations bill.”
But before White House officials and defense hawks on Capitol Hill celebrate, they should take a good, hard look at the opportunity that was missed. Congress and the administration could have used the NDAA process to incorporate the Pentagon reforms that are so desperately needed.
There are numerous issues with the NDAA that one could focus on, but one of the most significant is the absence of a process that would allow the Defense Department to conduct a comprehensive study on a new Base and Realignment Closure. At the start of every budget season, senior Pentagon officials—keenly aware of how the resources wasted into maintaining facilities that are neither used or needed—request authority from Congress to pursue a new round of base closures. Defense Secretary James Mattis encapsulated the department’s recommendation for additional closures succinctly in a letter to House Armed Services Committee leadership earlier in the year, writing that the Pentagon possesses at least 19 percent excess capacity that could be eliminated without negatively impacting the armed forces’ strength.
The Pentagon comptroller is publicly on record assessing that a new BRAC round could save the department $2 billion a year, savings that would otherwise be available for the readiness and maintenance issues defense hawks in Washington are so concerned about. And yet time in and time out, the same lawmakers that complain about insufficient national defense resources refuse to authorize a Pentagon recommendation that would indeed result in significant cost savings.
Parochial concerns unfortunately take precedence over a critical Pentagon reform that senior military and civilian officials in the department actually support. This year, like last year and the year before that, the U.S. military will be forced to invest valuable taxpayer dollars on antiquated buildings that military officials themselves have assessed they don’t need.
In terms of America’s core national security interests and strategic priorities, the NDAA Trump signed in many ways contradicts his foreign policy promises during the campaign.
For all of the president’s harping about burden-sharing and the need for European allies to increase defense spending and spend the money that is already in the pot more wisely—prioritizing weapons systems and training exercises over perks and benefits for personnel—the defense bill actually encourages the Trump administration to devote an additional $1.3 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds to the European continent in order to deter a Russian invasion of the Baltic states that is highly unlikely to occur.
The only reference to burden sharing within NATO is a “sense of Congress” provision reiterating the importance of European governments fulfilling “their commitments” to the alliance. If the NDAA’s reference for a stronger European commitment is meant to serve as a nudge to America’s wealthy European allies to fulfill their responsibilities within NATO, it will likely flounder. Talking points tend to fall on deaf ears when there is zero action to back them up.
One of the most intense fights, though, will occur over the next several weeks as Republicans and Democrats argue over the top-line figures in a future budget agreement. The question that will no doubt be asked this month is whether the Budget Control Act caps on discretionary spending should be eliminated entirely so more money can be appropriated for defense and non-defense priorities.
The congressional leadership in both parties continue to argue passionately that the U.S. government simply cannot function fully if the BCA limits remain the law of the land. That script, however, is based more on fear than logic. Despite constantly being told that budget limits are responsible for the U.S. military's readiness and training problem, the public remain just as concerned with a $20 billion (and growing) national debt that is also a national security threat to the United States and a stain on the country’s health, welfare, and international credibility.
As imperfect as the mandatory spending caps are, a better proposal has yet to be offered that would address what would undoubtedly be the return of a Washington spending spree if the BCA was overturned. The hard truth of the matter is that the BCA is the only budgetary mechanism crafted this decade that has forced members of Congress to spend within the country’s means. Just as importantly, the law has also opened up a conversation in Washington about national priorities, a far more healthy and constructive discussion than simply bypassing the tough choices and choosing the path of least resistance by kicking the out-of-control spending habit down the road for the next generation.
Throughout the years of fiscal brinksmanship, defense hawks have neglected to come up with a sufficient counterargument as to why eliminating the caps is a better tool to pump more taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon than defense officials weeding out waste from the building and evaluating which tertiary missions can be cut.
Every single fiscal year, the NDAA provides policymakers with the golden opening to reassess where the United States is as a nation, which programs and accounts have lost their utility in the current strategic environment, and which initiatives are important enough to America’s core security interests to build on. Regrettably, Washington failed the test this year.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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