WASHINGTON — The House and Senate’s compromise version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the U.S. Navy to buy 13 ships — five more than the administration asked for in its budget proposal. But actually getting that money to the Navy faces headwinds.
A conference committee preserved three littoral combat ships that came out of the House Armed Services Committee, notable because the president’s budget initially requested just one. The fight over LCS funding spilled into the public sphere after White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told a conservative radio host that the Navy didn’t even want them.
The committee also added a destroyer, an amphibious transport dock, an expeditionary sea base and a cable ship, according to a congressional staffer who spoke on background.
The NDAA also authorizes the full cost of repairs for the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain, which were both wrecked in fatal collisions this summer.
The total authorization blithely treads over the Budget Control Act to the tune of about $85 billion, which would trigger budget caps and across-the-board spending cuts if that level were to be approved in a final budget.
The total budget, with base funding and overseas contingency funding, is authorized at $700 billion.
Taxes, taxes, taxes
The big shipbuilding authorization is a step in the right direction for a Navy looking to add about 75 hulls to its fleet, but any progress on that is going to have to wait on the Republican-led effort to pass tax reform.
All signs on Capitol Hill point to zero progress on a budget deal that would raise budget caps until the tax reform package is passed, said Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
What that means is that unless Congress can find a deal sooner rather than later, the Defense Department is likely to have to live under a continuing resolution, which locks in spending at the previous year’s levels and stymies big investments in modernization acquisitions programs, Harrison said.
“It’s par for the course given the budget process and how its gone for the past eight years or so, and that is to say the budget process has not been working,” he said. “Tax reform is No. 1 on the agenda, and they are not going to move onto any serious discussion of a budget deal until they are through tax reform.”
But even if tax reform passes, it might not bode well for the kind of big boost in defense spending the House and Senate Armed Services committees are seeking.
“If they succeed in passing tax reform, it doesn’t automatically mean a big boost to defense spending because tax reform will increase the deficit significantly,” Harrison said. “It may make it harder to raise defense spending in the future.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.