WASHINGTON — The White House budget office has directed all federal departments and agencies to submit 2019 budgets no more than five percent above their 2018 budget requests.
The 2019 budget guidance, dated July 7, may be a sign that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney — known for prioritizing deficit reduction — is open to higher levels of defense spending in future years.
At first blush, the guidance seems to align with senior Pentagon leaders' requests to Congress for 3 percent to 5 percent budget growth annually. Base discretionary spending for the Department of Defense in the president's fiscal 2018 request was $574 billion, and that's projected to increase by roughly 2 percent to $587 billion in 2019 — which jumps to $616 with 5 percent more added.
The defense budget could fall in other ways. The president's budget gradually reduces the wartime Overseas Contingency Operations fund from $77 billion in 2018 to $12 billion in 2022 — though OMB has described these numbers as a placeholder, which suggests some flexibility.
Either way, such growth would violate spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while such a one-time budget increase would put the DoD on a trajectory to grow in size, it would take several years of increases to achieve the military buildup President Donald Trump talked about on the campaign trail.
"Under the Obama administration we used to see requests for cut lists rather than add lists," Harrison said. "It was common for OMB to ask for budgets showing how DoD and other agencies would adjust to a 5 percent cut in funding. It looks like Mulvaney is taking the opposite approach — start low, and then make them justify going higher."
The OMB chief's letter said the 2019 federal budget will be aimed at implementing a government reorganization and civilian workforce cuts — and "working with agencies to help deliver the fiscal restraint necessary to achieve 3 percent economic growth over time."
The DoD and other agencies are directed to submit budgets in line with their top lines in the 2018 budget and "additional investments" of no more than 5 percent above their submission.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress last month that anything less than 3 percent annual growth through 2023 could lead to America falling behind near-peer competitors such as China or Russia.
Under the first budget request from the Trump administration, the Pentagon's budget rose $18.5 billion above what the Obama administration projected for 2018 — a sizable increase for most government agencies, but relatively small for the DoD, especially in light of promises from Trump that he would rebuild the military.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said last month that he secured a commitment from House GOP leaders for 5 percent annual defense budget growth over three years as part of a budget deal in Congress that was still in flux as of July 10.