House passes Defense budget but next steps uncertain

House passes Defense budget but next steps uncertain

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Defense Secretary James Mattis, left, and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford at an earlier Senate Armed Services Committee hearing (Sgt. James McCann/Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)

WASHINGTON — The House approved a robust and meaty defense budget for the current fiscal year on Tuesday, in a vote that is more symbolic than substantive.

The vote was 250 to 166, along party lines. Only 23 Democrats supported the measure, and just four Republicans opposed it. President Donald Trump has indicated he would sign the $659.2 million defense funding bill if it cleared Congress.

That is a dim possibility as the bill is unlikely to win the needed Democratic support to pass the Senate. Nevertheless, it permits House Republicans one more chance to accuse Senate Democrats of playing politics with the military.

“This legislation provides the resources the military needs to keep the Nation safe, and is consistent with the President’s pledge to undo the looming defense spending reductions that are harmful to America’s national security and military readiness,” the White House said in a statement.

“The U.S. military’s greatest asset is the men and women who volunteer to serve. This bill keeps faith with service members by providing a 2.4 percent military pay raise. It increases end strength across the military services for active duty, reserve, and National Guard personnel, and includes funding for training and maintenance to ensure that United States troops are properly equipped and ready to fight,” the statement said.

The House bill would allocate $659.2 billion to the Defense Department with $584 billion in base budget funding and $75.1 billion for the wartime Overseas Contingency Operations account. A similar bill had passed the House before, but this would add $1.2 billion in OCO for the Afghanistan fight.

Budgets are more often political statements rather than real life, breathing actions, a reality underscored by the fact that it has been nine years since the Pentagon received a fully funded, stand-alone budget.

“This is the ninth straight year with a continuing resolution,” Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday. “This lack of predictability and that lack of stability in the budget has not allowed us to most efficiently plan and use the resources available to us.”

Because of budget uncertainties, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Pentagon is placing more emphasis on developing new “capabilities” than on expanding “capacity.” In other words, the Defense Department will emphasize innovation, modernization and acquisition more than it will prioritize the expansion of the size of the military, he said in public remarks two weeks ago.

The budget process generally works in two steps. First, Congress authorizes an amount of money to spend. It then must appropriate the actual money, which is the hard part and what Congress has failed to do. Look at the first part — the authorization — as the menu, and the second part — the appropriations — as the actual food brought to the table.

Doubts are growing on Capitol Hill that Republicans and Democrats can reach a long-term budget deal by Feb. 8, when the government will once again run out of money at midnight.

The Pentagon was given $634 billion for defense in 2017, which ended on Sept. 30, 2017. Since there is no budget money allocated for the current fiscal year (FY 2018), the Pentagon currently operates at last year’s funding levels.

Trump is reportedly ready to ask for $716 billion for FY 2019, a 7 percent increase on the current budget. Fiscal year 2019 begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

Further complicating budget issues is that caps under the Budget Control Act are still set to slash defense as well as non-defense federal discretionary spending this year. The Pentagon base budget would be held to $549 billion under the BCA, meaning the defense spending level requested by Trump last May would be cut by $54 billion and the level proposed by the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress last month by more than $80 billion.

Lawmakers must vote to raise the cap with new legislation before passing an annual appropriations bill, or be forced to dramatically scale back plans to build up the military. Violating the cap with higher spending would trigger the arbitrary, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

A lack of new funds will crimp ambitious plans to enhance the military. The bold plans to expand the Navy to 355 ships, growing the Army to well over 500,000 active-duty troops, and adding new weapons systems and “platforms” will be stymied.

The absence of an expanded, guaranteed budget could result in more modest increases in force size and finding ways to economize some modernization plans. Innovations like the B-21 bomber, new opportunities in artificial intelligence and robotics, new unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles, greater redundancy in space systems, and stronger hardening of electronics systems against cyber attack or nuclear attack will likely be near full-funded. Not so for items such as the F-35 fighter program, the anticipated ICBM modernization program and the Navy ambition to grow its fleet 25 percent in the next 20 years.

Among programs that could be delayed: the $16 billion T-X Trainer jet, 350 aircraft to replace the Air Force’s aging T-38 trainers; the so-called FFG(X), or guided-missile frigate replacement program for the Navy, and broad Army modernization programs to replace platforms used since the 1970s and 1980s.

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