Congressmen clash over separation of defense budget at Brookings talk

WASHINGTON — Strict spending limits imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act are threatening military readiness, two members of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday. But Republican Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., proposed that military spending be separated from other spending in the budget, while Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., advocated a more holistic approach to budget reconciliation, citing reduced revenue if President Donald Trump’s planned tax cuts become law.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have approved defense budgets near $700 billion, a figure also supported by the president. Both Bacon and Larsen voted in favor of the nearly $700 billion defense budget in the July House vote.

However, that budget cannot go into effect without lifting caps set by the Budget Control Act, which would limit defense spending to around $549 billion.

Bacon told Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, who moderated the discussion, that budget caps “were a punch to the face of our military” and predicted that Congress will ultimately lift the caps.

Larsen echoed Bacon’s concerns about military readiness, describing a “triangle of tension” between procurement, operations and readiness that “is becoming more under duress as sequestration and budget caps continue.” Despite that consensus, however, the congressmen disagreed about how Congress should approach its defense appropriations in the face of these caps.

Bacon advocated for a separation of the defense budget from other spending, arguing that “partisan rancor and vitriol” about domestic spending posed a serious threat to funding the military: “When you hold the defense hostage to a debate over domestic spending — and that’s what’s happened — we suffer.”

Last week, Bacon was one of over 150 House Republicans to sign a letter to Trump in support of the president’s $700 billion defense budget. “Any budget negotiation must make the national security of our nation a top priority,” the letter said. “It is essential we fund our military at the right level as soon as possible.”

However, Larsen warned that lifting spending caps while imposing significant tax cuts — which the president’s budget proposal would do – would be unrealistic. Cutting taxes while increasing spending “really makes budgeting into a joke that we are actually telling and are the butt of,” he said.

As a result, Larsen insisted that defense spending should not be divorced from a broader budgetary context: “I don’t believe we should separate the domestic budget from the defense budget because we have to pass an entire budget.”