HASC Chair Thornberry Doesn’t Anticipate Spending Dip in Next Defense Budget

September 25, 2018 6:47 PM
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) traveled to Europe in mid-April with several members of Congress to visit troops stationed overseas and to meet with our allies in the region. Among other stops, he met with Maj. Gen. Niel Nelson, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, right.

CAPITOL HILL — A time of steady, predictable military funding could be at hand, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said on Tuesday.

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the $717 billion FY 2019 defense appropriations act next week. Anticipating the vote, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), said the pending appropriations bill goes a long way to rebuilding a military that has for too long suffered from operating under spending caps or temporary spending bills.

“Now I admit it’s a little bit weird to be so proud that we actually do our job on time, but given where we are, we’ll take it,” Thornberry said.

For the Navy, the bill sets aside for $24.1 billion for new ship construction. The bill also provides $12.1 billion for maintenance and repairs to current ships, and $2 billion for recruiting and training sailors, according to a fact sheet released by Thornberry’s office.

When looking ahead at the FY 2020 budget and appropriations process, Thornberry was upbeat about what was possible. He expects at best a slight increase from the 2019 spending level but bipartisan for such a plan.

“I think the more likely outcome is a modest, roughly the percentage of inflation increase,” Thornberry said. “Something has to be done with the Budget Control Act. I don’t know what the mechanism will look like, will it be a two-year deal, can we finally just vote to abolish the damn thing, or you know what’s going to happen, I don’t know the answer.”

However, not everyone tracking defense spending agrees even flat budget growth is possible. Smaller defense budgets are likely to start in 2020, Rep. Adam Smith, (D-Wash.), HASC ranking member, said earlier this month at the Defense News Conference.

“We are not in a fiscal position to have the size of the defense budget that a lot of people envision when they start spelling out all these nightmare scenarios about everything that we have to be prepared for,” Smith said at the conference.

Even if there’s support on the Hill for maintaining defense spending at its current level, Thornberry said Congress still has to contend with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Automatic budget caps will take effect unless a budget deal is worked out.

A budget agreement, though, would have to likely match any increased defense funding with increased social services funding to pass, Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week during a media briefing. Harrison and CSIS colleague Seamus Daniels were discussing their Analysis of the FY 2019 Defense Budget.

Complicating this process, Harrison added, is the Pentagon projects increasing its FY 2020 budget request by $84 billion while also moving what has been funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back into Pentagon’s base budget.

For years Congress has paid for the wars through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, Thornberry said. For recurring activities, he said the Pentagon’s base budget should include this funding.

Moving OCO funding back to the base budget, though, will add about $53 billion to the Pentagon’s budget, and would count against any mandatory cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act, Harrison said during his briefing.

“I think it’s going to be a long, hard drawn-out fight,” Harrison said during the briefing.

In contrast, Thornberry, who cited Harrison’s study and briefing, doesn’t think the budget process will be so contentious. He doesn’t know how Congress will deal with the Budget Control Act but expects an agreement, even if the House flips to Democratic control.

“I just don’t see very much support for back-tracking on readiness and other critical issues, so I do not see a return to the Budget Control Act cuts,” Thornberry said.

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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