WASHINGTON — A group of 70 House lawmakers are urging President Donald Trump to stick to a planned top line of $733 billion for his fiscal 2020 defense budget request to Congress and forgo a proposed $33 billion cut.
“President Trump cannot claim he is rebuilding our military while cutting the funds necessary to do so,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and the lawmaker leading a letter to Trump made public Thursday. “We’ve seen the devastating effects on readiness when our military is forced to make arbitrary cuts as our adversaries continue to aggressively invest in their national security operations.”
Due to be sent to Trump at the end of next week, the letter is signed by only one Democrat — Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz. — which underscores the possibility of tough negotiations defense hawks will face under divided government. In essence, the lawmakers are asking Trump to start them off in stronger position as Democrats are expected to emphasize domestic spending over defense.
Turner, the chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, has led letters of this sort often in recent years to publicly add pressure to increase defense budgets. The release of this letter comes amid a flurry of activity months ahead of Trump submitting his FY20 budget request.
After signing significant defense increases into law — to $700 billion for fiscal 2018 and $716 billion for 2019 — the president has shown signs he may be wavering on a planned $733 billion defense top line. In a tweet this week, Trump called the FY19 figure, “Crazy!” after his budget office ordered the Pentagon weeks ago to prepare a $700 billion budget as an alternative to the $733 billion budget.
The new letter quotes Trump to himself, reminding him that upon signing the 2019 defense policy bill into law he bragged it was, “the most significant investment in our military and our warfighters in modern history,” and, “We are going to strengthen our military like never ever before and that’s what we did.”
They excerpt the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which also pledges, “historic investments in the United States military” and that “The whole world is lifted by America’s renewal and the reemergence of American leadership.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, HASC chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and SASC chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., lobbied Trump toward the higher top line. The two chairmen met with Trump at the White House on Tuesday, when they associated suboptimal defense budgets of the past with Trump’s sometime foil, President Barack Obama.
The letter released Thursday claims the, “erosion of American military strength is a direct result of the Obama Administration’s sequestration.” (The 2011 Budget Control Act was passed by Congress, on a bipartisan basis, to avert a default on the U.S. debt.)
“Since sequestration went into effect, dwindling resources have negatively affected our service members and military readiness,” the letter reads. “Our military has shouldered the burden of this harmful and failed political budgetary tactic, and it has had severe consequences for our national security.”
The letter also cites the National Defense Strategy Commission’s recent warnings about America’s eroding military edge.
“Cuts to defense spending will have disastrous consequences for our military readiness, as was proven by sequestration,” the letter reads. “America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt. If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave and lasting.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.