House Armed Services chairman says Democrats open to fairly big defense budget

The White House’s $750 billion defense budget is a nonstarter and stuffs too much money into emergency war accounts, according to top Democrats. But there is a way the Defense Department can get most of the funds it wants for 2020, said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

It’s no secret that the 2020 White House budget, which slashed domestic spending and benefits while beefing up the military, would be dead on arrival for the Democratic-led House.

But Smith told the audience at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Conference on Wednesday that it shouldn’t be too hard to give the military most of what it wants for 2020 with a $733 billion defense budget that Democrats can get behind.

“The House Budget Committee, the number that they’ve talked about for defense is $733 billion,” Smith said. “It’s a not insubstantial number. If you take out the roughly $10 billion in emergency spending that’s folded in, you’re not that far apart on the budget numbers. I don’t see that being a problem, but we will have to find savings in some places, obviously.”

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The $9.2 billion DoD requested for emergency spending would be used mostly to build the wall along the southern border and refill military construction accounts it plans to use for wall construction in 2019 under the president’s emergency declaration.

Smith said Congress will be putting pressure on the DoD to find savings now that its performed its first ever audit.

“I do believe there are savings to be found within the Pentagon in terms of being more efficient in acquisition and procurement and a whole lot of other areas” Smith said.

Another area Smith talked about finding money is cyber. He said the government doesn’t look at where all its resources are and maximize them.

“I think cyber is a good place to go for savings,” Smith said. “It’s sort of like what we learned after 9/11, that we had too many agencies that weren’t coordinated and weren’t talking together. Cyber is everywhere. How are we getting out of that silo problem?”

Showdown

While Smith thinks Democrats and Republicans can agree on a number to fund the military to where it thinks it should be, the way the funding is done may be an issue.

The current 2020 budget request funds DoD to the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act. That leaves about $174 billion stuffed into emergency accounts. This year the request has an overseas contingency operations (OCO) account for war funds and an OCO for base account, which puts things that would go into the base budget in their own account immune from the budget caps.

“That’s not going to happen,” Smith said. “It’s the wrong way to budget. It’s incredibly disingenuous to put $174 billion in OCO. OCO has always been a little fudgey in terms of using it to fund some things that might not necessarily have been part of the overseas contingency operation. But now, they’ve eliminated any pretense.”

Smith said the issue will be how the White House works its way back to something that is acceptable to Congress.

“If they don’t we are staring at possibly another shutdown or best case scenario another continuing resolution,” Smith said.

Smith also advocated for a whole-of-government approach to dealing with conflict. He said cutting things like the State Department budget, which builds peace and stability, means  more money the U.S. will need to spend on defense.

Last year, Smith said Democrats will look at how they can, within a reasonable budget, manage risk while also prioritizing other factors that make a country “safe, secure and prosperous” like paying down debt and fixing infrastructure.

“The biggest problem I feel that we’ve had is, because we get this ‘Oh my God we have to cover everything [mindset],’ we wind up covering nothing well and that leaves the men and women who serve us in a position where they are not properly trained, properly equipped to meet all the missions we want them to meet,” he said. “It’s a complete impossibility to meet all the missions that we dream up.”

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