Is there a budget deal on the horizon? The NDAA might be a clue

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said he wouldn't back down from the $640 billion defense top-line in the NDAA unless a multi-year budget ...

Over the last four days, the 2018 defense authorization bill got a little smaller, but that slight change in funding could signal a much bigger budget deal on the horizon.

Last Friday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters he would continue with a $640 billion top-line base budget for the 2018 defense authorization bill unless some sort of multi-year budget deal could be reached.

On June 26, House Armed Services Committee aides told reporters the top-line for the bill was dropped to $631.5 billion.

That’s an interesting development.

“Out of respect that some of those negotiations are still ongoing and the Budget Committee is still waiting to markup, I’m not comfortable getting into the specifics, but what I will say is what the chairman said last week absolutely still holds in terms of why the mark came out at $631.5 [billion] base as opposed to $640 [billion],” a House Armed Services Committee aide said in a June 26 meeting with reporters.

That could mean Thornberry made an $8.5 billion concession to help reach a deal to avoid sequestration for multiple years.

Nothing has been announced yet, and lawmakers and staffers are keeping information close to the vest.

But a multi-year deal could be a huge relief for military leadership. Unpredictable budgeting has been the bane of the military’s existence since sequestration became the law of the land.

Congress, in an attempt to work around sequestration and reach a domestic and military funding balance that all can agree on, has given the military continuing resolution after continuing resolution.

The resolutions, which reinstate funding from the previous year’s budget, made it nearly impossible for the military to plan for the future, the military’s top leaders said.

“It’s the cumulative effect. We’ve been doing CRs now for eight years and a shutdown in [20]13,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in April. “It’s like smoking cigarettes. One cigarette is not going to kill you, but you do that for eight, 10, 20 years, 30 years, you’re eventually going to die of lung cancer.”

The military service chiefs railed against CRs and their new status as commonplace within the budget process.

Milley said the failure to pass a budget is “constitutional professional malpractice.”

“I don’t think we should accept [CRs] as the new normal,” Milley said.

With sequestration as law, the military is forced to do two times the budgeting work by making one budget with sequestration caps and one without them.

Sequestration is set to return in 2018 unless Congress can come up with a budget deal to raise the caps.

The $631.5 billion base budget is still way over the $603 billion sequestration cap for defense set by the Budget Control Act.

If Congress doesn’t come to a budget deal, the defense budget would revert to the $603 billion. President Donald Trump’s budget request for 2018 asks for only $603 billion for the military, a move that ruffled the feathers of defense hawks like Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“The president intends to submit a defense budget request for $603 billion. Such a budget request would represent an increase of $18.5 billion above the level proposed by President Obama for fiscal year 2018,” McCain said when the budget came out in February. “With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget. We can and must do better.”

What came out?

As for the numbers in the House Armed Services Committee bill, Thornberry did have to take out $8.5 billion to move from $640 billion down to $631.5 billion.

Committee aides said the $8.5 billion came from toning down the amount of funding in certain areas.

“It has to do with the dial on it. How much you can put into restoration and maintenance on the facilities side, for example. How much you can do in some of the procurement categories,” one aide said.

Another aide said a lot of the money dropped can be moved to fiscal 2019.

“If we had some confidence there would be growth in 2019, there are some things that had to be funded this year in order to enable the services to do what they needed to do in 2019, and there’s other things, you could execute them this year, but if you are confident there would be some growth next year, then there’s not an opportunity cost to wait,” the staffer said.

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