CRS Confirms Trump's Defense Spending Hike Would Violate Budget Law

Defense Department file photo

Though most lawmakers probably knew it already, the Congressional Research Service on Monday confirmed that President Trump’s March 16 proposal to boost the defense budget by $54 billion would run afoul of the 2011 Budget Control Act that equally caps defense and non-defense spending.

CRS report dated April 3 and leaked to the Federation of American Scientists stated clearly that the proposed hike—60 percent of which Trump would offset with cuts in domestic spending-- would not comply with the law’s caps set at $549 billion for fiscal 2018. “In addition, the administration’s request for additional fiscal 2017 appropriations would exceed the current fiscal 2017 defense limit by $25 billion,” wrote analysts Pat Towell and Lynn Williams, adding that the caps on defense and nondefense spending for each year are ”independently binding.”

Defense appropriations at those levels for either fiscal year under Trump’s plan “would trigger sequestration, in the absence of the appropriate statutory changes to BCA,” the analysts wrote.

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President Obama also sent up a defense proposal that would have exceeded the cap, a final request of a $36 billion defense hike in fiscal 2016. Though many viewed Trump’s $54 billion hike as aggressive, CRS characterized it as only a 3.2 percent increase when seen against the baseline of what Obama proposed.

Trump’s budget proposal has often been declared “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., published a paper this January in which he favored breaking the defense budget cap by even more—proposing a $640 billion fiscal 2018 defense budget, along with $60 billion in war funding through the Overseas Contingency Operations account, CRS noted. That would exceed the budget limits by $91.3 billion, the analysts said.

Whatever Congress ends up spending on defense, some observers point out that the Office of Management and Budget, which is in charge of implementing the sequestration caps under the 2011 law, could decide to enforce them only loosely. That was suggested by experts at a February panel on the defense budget put on the Professional Services Council, a contractors group.

Republicans in Congress, eager to enact the majority agenda amid a probable stalemate on the budget, may resort to steps such as altering Senate appropriations rules and firing the parliamentarian, said Stan Collender, a Capitol Hill veteran staffer who is executive vice president of the MSLGROUP.

Trump, in turn, may order Budget Director Mick Mulvaney not to enforce sequestration’s spending caps, for which “there are no criminal or civil penalties for violating the law,” noted David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

Technically, added Collender, “I don’t think that would be impeachable, and I don’t believe anyone has standing to sue, so it’s a political question.”

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