WASHINGTON — Key Democrats on Tuesday were laughing off reports that President Donald Trump reversed course on his defense spending plans and now wants a dramatic boost in the military budget next fiscal year.
“Until it comes here, it’s irrelevant,” Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and the soon-to-be chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told Defense News at the Capitol on Tuesday. “When they sit and negotiate with us, then we can talk about it.”
Following lobbying by congressional Republicans and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump reportedly committed to a fiscal 2020 national defense budget of at least $750 billion, a nearly 5 percent defense spending increase instead of the announced plan for $700 billion, which would have been a 2 percent cut. The $700 billion plan was a downgrade from a $733 billion top line the Pentagon had been planning around.
A back-and-forth between the Defense Department and White House over the defense budget is normal, but it’s not typically done so publicly. And with Democrats taking control of the House next month, Republicans no longer have control of both chambers of Congress to override Democratic objections to their budget goals.
Asked about the public nature of the administration’s deliberations this year, Lowey was derisive. “Well, maybe they don’t have anything better to do," she said.
Defense hawks have been publicly arguing that the top line is a serious matter. A group of 70 House lawmakers sent a letter to Trump urging he stick to the $733 billion plan because the nation’s edge against rivals Russia and China hangs in the balance.
Hawkish SASC Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, of Arizona, said he was delighted Trump seems poised to propose a defense budget boost but conceded the public indecision had been harmful to the cause.
“Yes, it would be better if there were a consensus from Day 1 of everybody, but that just isn’t the way things work in Washington," Kyl said. "I’m really delighted the direction of the movement is up toward an amount that would represent adequate funding for defense for next year.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., hinted that a higher top-line will help Republicans seeking a defense increase. “By putting the number high, he gives us hope, because I believe funding the military is our number one priority in this nation, to secure the nation," Shelby said.
But Sen. Jack Reed, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member and a senior appropriator, argued that Congress for years required high-level bipartisan budget deals, and he suggested that floating a number so high above the $576 billion defense cap for FY20 is not a path to a solution.
“It’s not a coherent, comprehensive approach to the budget problems,” Reed said. “It’s a number here, a number there. It doesn’t deal with the underlying issue, which is sequestration, how do you relieve it for defense and nondefense, how do you fund the State Department if you’re only funding DoD and nothing else.”
After signing significant defense increases into law in recent years — $700 billion for fiscal 2018 and $716 billion for fiscal 2019 — the president had been showing signs of indecision about continued defense hikes. In a recent tweet, Trump called that FY19 figure “crazy!”
Trump’s reported turn to $750 billion came after a Dec. 4 meeting with Mattis, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who warned a $700 billion top line is not only contrary to the administration’s national security buildup but potentially dangerous for the nation.
Still, Reed downplayed the importance of the top line in the president’s budget proposal.
“He sent a budget up here last year, for example, which zeroed out community development block grants, and it was effectively ignored by both sides,” Reed said of the president. “He sent up proposals to raise things and lower things, and once we had a sequestration deal for the top lines, we — as we should — put together budgets and appropriations bills.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, an HASC Democrat who favors downgrading America’s military presence overseas, suggested the public back-and-forth is already undermining the case for a defense increase.
“Its an outrage when the House committee is proposing a larger budget than even the administration wants,” said Khanna, of California. “It highlights to me that we have combat troops in 17 countries around the world. We are overextended as a military, and what we need to do is exercise far more restraint.”
When asked about the public deliberations, another HASC Democrat, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, laughed out loud.
“I think the president is trying to live up to his [book], ‘The Art of the Deal,’ and he’s not doing a good job at it,” said Panetta, of California. “He’s all over the place. He’s started off low, and now he’s high, and we’re really not sure where the administration is on this. Eventually this will percolate to the top and we’ll figure it out.”
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.