WASHINGTON — Key House Democrats are slamming the Trump administration’s plan to offset defense spending limits by inflating a war fund, as well as the president’s plan to divert military funding to build a wall on the southern U.S. border.
The administration’s decision to propose a $164 billion war budget with $98 billion in base-budget needs for 2020 is a “patently dishonest budget maneuver” to avoid statutory budget caps, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said Wednesday.
Overall, the president is seeking a $750 billion national defense budget for fiscal 2020, beyond the $716 billion Congress enacted for FY19.
At a House Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday, Yarmuth told David Norquist, who is the Pentagon’s comptroller and acting deputy defense secretary, that the Trump administration plans could yield yet another partisan stalemate and government shutdown. Norquist’s appearance was the Defense Department’s first before the panel in five years.
“We all agree we need a military that is second to none, but securing our nation requires a comprehensive strategy, which includes nondefense activities,” Yarmuth said. “We must begin by raising budget caps as soon as possible. Instead the president ignores this need and uses a dishonest OCO [overseas contingency operations] gimmick to increase defense spending by cutting nondefense investments critical to our national and economic security.”
To avoid negotiating a bipartisan budget deal while adding funds for President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall, the administration is using the war fund to skirt budget caps — while also cutting the nondefense side of the budget. To get additional border wall funding denied by Congress, Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border to claim broader authorities to shift dollars in the Pentagon’s budget.
These unprecedented budget maneuvers have upset members on the left and right.
“There is bipartisan opposition to [the president’s budget], and I can assure you the Democratic-controlled House is not going to pass a budget that creates $174 billion [overseas contingency operations funding] and guts every other aspect of funding,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told Pentagon leaders at a hearing Tuesday.
The president’s proposed budget “dramatically undercuts” Congress’ ability to find a two-year budget deal and is “breathtakingly irresponsible,” Smith said, adding that the Pentagon budget’s inclusion of border wall funding undercuts arguments for an increase.
“To look at the Pentagon as sort of a piggy bank slush fund — where you can simply go and grab money for something when you need it — really undermines the credibility of the entire DoD budget,” Smith said. “If you’ve got $5 billion to $10 billion to $20 billion just lying around the Pentagon for any particular purpose, what does that say about whether or not you really need the money you are telling us that you need?”
Smith, on Tuesday, attempted to block the Pentagon’s move to reprogram $1 billion in Army funding to support the border wall. The situation foreshadows a fight over which branch of government has final authority on how that money can be spent.
Department of Defense officials have told lawmakers that decisions to pursue unorthodox budgeting maneuvers were made elsewhere in the administration. At Wednesday’s budget hearing, Norquist skipped an opportunity to defend the approach, saying: “What we did is we built up the requirement and presented it in the way we were asked to present it.”
The focus on the president’s budget belies disunity among House Democrats about the ultimate size of their counter-proposal, as Yarmuth has yet to announce whether his panel will attempt to draft a budget.
While steep cuts seem to be on the agenda of members like Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who confronted Norquist on Wednesday over comparatively smaller defense budgets of America’s global competitors, other Democrats questioned Norquist in a way that was protective of defense spending in their respective districts.
Late in the hearing, Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, the House Budget Committee’s top Republican, chided Democrats for apparent contradiction.
“I want to point out the conflict my colleagues on the other side of the aisle seem to be having: They can’t agree on a defense top-line number,” he said. “We get mixed signals, which leads me to wonder: What’s the plan? What are we going to do with defense spending?”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.