Ryan Budget Calls for Return to Pre-Sequester Defense Spending

Defense Department file photo

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan laid out a budget vision Tuesday that goes beyond President Obama's request by ramping up defense spending beyond the caps in 2016 and restoring them by 2017.

Ryan does this by taking from the nondefense side of the ledger and still reducing overall federal spending beyond what is contemplated under the total sequester caps.

"This budget rejects the president's cuts to national security.… It also keeps faith with the veterans who have served and protected the nation," declares the Ryan budget, which increases defense spending above what President Obama has called for by $273 billion over the 10-year budget window.

"The first job of the federal government is securing the safety and liberty of its citizens from threats at home and abroad," Ryan's budget proclaims, listing national defense at the top of its budget breakdown.

"This budget provides for the best equipment, training, and compensation for their continued success."

Unsurprisingly, the Wisconsin Republican's budget, like Obama's, sticks to the defense spending caps agreed to under last year's Bipartisan Budget Act of $521 billion for discretionary spending for fiscal 2015.

And it is important to note that for fiscal 2015, Obama technically is calling for more for defense, because his budget asks for an additional $28 billion for defense spending as part of a so-called opportunity fund that Congress would have to approve through a series of other policy changes, including tax increases that are unlikely to be adopted.

Although neither Obama nor Ryan sticks to the defense sequester caps in 2016 and beyond, starting in fiscal 2016 Ryan's budget starts increasing defense spending beyond what Obama calls for, every year through 2024.

For example, in fiscal 2017 Ryan's budget asks for $590 billion for defense discretionary spending, compared with the $569 billion total for defense discretionary spending that the president requests. The trend line continues, with Ryan requesting $696 billion for defense discretionary spending in 2024, compared with the $646 billion that Obama has reqeusted, after adjustments based on policy changes the White House is assuming in its budget.

Ryan does all this while still coming in under the total discretionary budget caps set by the sequester, ultimately shaving $308 billion from the overall federal budget caps. He does so by reducing nondefense discretionary spending by more than he is increasing defense spending. By 2024 Ryan is adding $483 billion to defense spending beyond what the sequester would allow and cutting $791 billion from nondefense discretionary spending sequester caps in order to achieve overall savings to the federal government.

Defense-budget analysts were quick to put the Ryan budget in context—it's a message piece that, like the president's budget, has next to no chance of becoming law.

"This is just another marker in the debate," said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow in defense-budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Harrison said it is important to understand that Ryan's budget resolution might not pass the House, and has no chance of being reconciled with the Senate—which has said it is not putting out a budget proposal—and does not have the teeth of an appropriations bill.

"So all it is is a marker to give an indication of where the House thinks various spending levels ought to be. It does not mean that we will end up there in any way, shape, or form, even if they can get it to pass the House, which is not a given," Harrison added. "It doesn't mean too much, it's just an indication of the party's position."

Other budget analysts said the key takeaway is that both Obama and fiscal conservatives believe that the defense sequester cuts go too far in restricting funding for national defense.

"Ryan's budget—in following the president's—shows that there is bipartisan consensus that the defense sequester cuts remain too deep, which is a sensible belief because that part of the budget—like domestic discretionary—is not a driver of our long-term debt," said Shai Akabas, an associate director of economic policy with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Whether this agreement will change the trajectory of defense spending is unclear. Democrats are unlikely to go along with Ryan's plan of sacrificing nondefense discretionary spending in order to increase defense spending.

The Ryan budget does not break down the national defense budget into specifics, such as how much would go to, say, the Defense Department versus the atomic energy defense activities of the Energy Department.

But for 2015 in total, his budget resolution calls for $528.9 billion in budget authority and $566.5 billion in outlays in fiscal 2015 for national defense. Of that, discretionary spending totals $521.3 billion in budget authority and $558.8 billion in outlays. Mandatory spending is $7.7 billion in outlays. The 10-year total for budget authority and outlays are $6.3 trillion and $6.2 trillion, respectively.

Ryan boasts that his budget sticks to the budget caps from last year's Bipartisan Budget Act approved by the House and Senate and signed into law by Obama in December.

"This is the amount provided for in the Bipartisan Budget Act," according to the budget document.

In the budget, Ryan criticizes the fact that over the last five years, DOD has repeatedly revised down its estimates of its budgetary resources necessary to meet the nation's security needs. He essentially admonishes the president for trying to cut defense spending, noting that in the president's 2014 budget, the request is approximately $184 billion lower than the Budget Control Act's pre-sequester caps.

Ryan's budget says that the defense program continues to be under-resourced and that the most recent Congressional Budget Office report found that last year's DOD defense program request was, on average, $33 billion short of providing for the full costs of the program estimated by CBO.

"Today in U.S. defense policy there are two big mismatches," the Ryan budget says. "First between the threats we face and the resources we've committed to meeting them, and second between our stated policy and the budget the president has requested."

It adds, "This budget seeks to resolve these contradictions by restoring defense budgets to to the levels dictated by the national security interests of the nation."

Ryan's budget says Obama's troop-reduction request is too severe and calls for additional resources for troops beyond what Obama requested, without providing specific details on costs.

Under last year's budget agreement between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Congress agreed to provide $9 billion in relief from the budget sequester for defense in fiscal 2015.

The sequester is one of the biggest budget challenges plaguing the Defense Department. A repercussion of the August 2011 debt-ceiling standoff, the sequester slashed $1.2 trillion in spending over 10 years and was established as a way to force Congress to come up with more targeted deficit-reduction plans. But Congress seems incapable of agreeing on a comprehensive replacement, and although they did lessen its impact for fiscal 2014 and 2015, they also extended the sequester another two years.

Last year, Ryan's budget took a similar tack with defense spending. It called for $560.2 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2014, which he called "consistent with our responsibilities."

The Ryan budget noted that the proposal was "significantly less than the levels in previous budget resolutions," but it boasted that it was roughly $500 billion more than will be available absent changes in the Budget Control Act.

"Our security is the federal government's top priority," said Ryan's fiscal 2014 budget. "The budget must reflect that fact."

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