Washington, D.C. — Defense spending is experiencing historical growth this year following the two-year budget deal lawmakers reached in February but it would be a mistake to assume the cash infusion is being used to significantly expand the military’s force structure, a panel of Washington-based experts said last week at the 2018 Defense Communities National Summit. “I wouldn’t call this a buildup at all,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “[It’s] nothing like the Reagan buildup.”
DOD is benefitting from a giant jump in funding this year but there are concerns about what the department is buying with the new money, said Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It’s not necessarily translating into the new defense priorities of the Trump administration, she said.
The key unanswered question is whether the Pentagon can expect the largesse to extend beyond fiscal 2019, the second year of the budget agreement. Without a new deal, DOD’s topline spending level would drop under the FY 2020 and 2021 caps in the Budget Control Act. The most likely scenario is another two-year deal similar to this year’s, Harrison said. “This year’s deal upped the baseline,” he said.
A change in control of the House following the midterm elections, which several panelists considered likely, almost certainly would influence how an FY 2020-21 budget negotiation plays out. “[It] will just get more difficult to get there. It was difficult last time,” Eaglen said. More specifically, Democratic control of the House would “dramatically” affect the topline spending levels in a new budget agreement, she said. This year’s deal raises the spending cap for national security by $80 billion in FY 2018 and $85 billion in FY 2019. But a Democratic House could result in a significantly lower annual increase for defense under a new budget deal, something closer to $40 billion, Eaglen said.
With rising deficits projected to become a significant issue in future budget negotiations, “the real question” is the FY 2020 budget, said Frederico Bartels, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “For the amount of questions that budget will have to answer, it will have to be a masterpiece,” Bartels said.
Photo by Will Noonan