As we begin a divided 116th Congress with government funding uncertainty, Congress will soon find itself in another financial predicament — securing defense spending levels on par with the needs of our Department of Defense.
While the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 allowed for important growth and investments in fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019, with sequestration looming, we now find ourselves in a perilous scenario with this year’s defense budget deliberations. Without a legislative fix in the coming months, we will lose the momentum that we have worked so hard to build.
As Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer described it recently: “We’ve laid the foundation and spent this money to get us going in the right direction. The bicycle is up, we are pedaling; please don’t knock us over.”
Congress delivered for our service members the past two years in a bipartisan manner, and we must do so again.
For the past two years, we have seen how defense budgets that match the needs of our military can deliver overwhelmingly positive results in crucial areas such as readiness, training and procurement. For instance, the recently passed HR 6157 (the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2019) supported our war fighters by including a 2.6 percent pay raise for our troops — the largest pay raise in nine years. The bill also looked forward by including $144 billion for increased troop levels of 1,338,100 active-duty and 817,700 Guard and Reserve forces — meeting the requested 16,400 end-strength increases.
To restore readiness, the bill provided $245.9 billion, an increase of $9.3 billion above base FY18 funding levels, for training, maintenance and base operations. And as a direct benefit to service members, the bill replenished equipment procurement accounts with $148 billion while including $96 billion for research and development for new technologies.
Without these increased defense budget caps the past two years, we could never have achieved these results for our service members.
We must continue this positive trend in FY20, and I am already encouraged by the initial efforts of my congressional colleagues and President Donald Trump. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas,, the House Armed Services Committee ranking member, called on President Trump to submit an FY20 national defense budget with a funding level of $733 billion, which aligns with the National Defense Strategy.
To his credit, President Trump knows that our military is at a critical funding juncture and has reportedly backed a $750 billion top-line figure for FY20. Whether Congress ultimately stays at $750 billion, $733 billion or somewhere in between, we must pass a bipartisan budget cap that lifts the arbitrary limit, or the large-number rhetoric will be for naught.
Without a deal, the Budget Control Act would limit FY20 defense spending at $578 billion — a drop off of roughly $81 billion from a year ago. These low spending levels would begin to reverse the progress we have made and weaken our armed forces. We can’t let that happen.
I call on both my defense-hawk and fiscal-hawk colleagues to support a bipartisan budget cap deal for the benefit of our military. While power in the House of Representatives changed when the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019, the threats in the world did not. Nor should our prioritization for defense. I understand and share concerns about our nation’s growing national debt, but we should not discipline the military for Congress’ inability to manage the country’s finances. According to information derived from the Office of Management and Budget, national defense spending only accounted for 15 percent of the 2017 budget, while major entitlement programs accounted for 52 percent. Worse, by 2023 our nation is projected to spend more on servicing the public debt than on defense spending by over $20 billion. I believe that tough spending decisions need to be made, but they should not come at the expense of our national defense.
The past two years of defense spending have put our nation’s military in a position to grow, strengthen and prosper. Our funding levels should be continued in FY20 and enabled by a budget cap deal to stem the effects of sequestration. Our military depends on it. Our country’s security depends on it. Let’s not get knocked off track.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., is the ranking member of the sea power panel of the House Armed Services Committee. He also serves on the HASC Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee.