Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

House Speaker: Budget Fights Have ‘Pushed Our Military Past the Breaking Point’

Paul Ryan highlighted defense hawks’ concerns about readiness and funding as Congress tries to avert a shutdown.

“Rebuilding the military” is the “highest priority today,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday, bringing national security to the fore as a government shutdown loomed.

“We have simply pushed our military past the breaking point,” said Ryan, R-Wisc., in a brief talk on defense policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies event today. “Instead of upgrading our hardware, we have let our equipment age. Instead of equipping our troops for tomorrow’s fight, we have let them become woefully underequipped.”

“Right now, our men and women in uniform, today, are under enormous strain, some of which, frankly, is of our own making, he added. “This is why rebuilding the military is one of the highest priorities of our unified government.”

Like Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and other defense hawks before him, Ryan linked the lack of consistent funding and ensuing readiness woes to training accidents and the deaths of sailors in collisions at sea last year.

“The cost of these readiness deficiencies are really dire, and this is literally costing us lives,” Ryan said. “In total, we lost 80 lives due to training accidents in 2017 alone. That is four times as many were killed in combat.…We need to do better.”

Members of the armed services committees have said similar things before. But the call to arms was significant coming from the House’s top Republican, whose top priority until December had been passing tax cuts that are projected to reduce federal revenues by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Ryan delivered the speech — one of the first from top Congressional leadership on military readiness and funding issues in decades, according to one CSIS official’s recollection — the day before government funding will run out unless lawmakers can come to agreement. The threat of a shutdown looms large in military leaders' minds, as Ryan’s party and the Democrats continue to fight over how to fund the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government for the remainder of 2018.

The Pentagon requested a $603-billion base budget for 2018 — a full $54 billion over the $549 cap allowed under the Budget Control Act. Both chambers already passed an even larger authorization with $634 billion in base dollars in November.

“An adequate budget agreement fully funds our troops; that means lifting the spending caps that disproportionately hamstring the defense budget, holding our national security hostage,” Ryan said. “The Pentagon cannot plan for the future if it keeps operating under short-term spending bills.”

If they get the Senate votes to avert a government shutdown, it’s meant to give the the parties time to agree on toplines, work out details and, most importantly, overcome political hurdles. One of the largest: Democrats are fighting to include a replacement for the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program with any budget, fearing it won’t be addressed at all if it’s not done now. Ryan says it’s unacceptable to link the two and treat the military as a “bargaining chip.”

“The defense budget is being held hostage for DACA, which is not a deadline that expires tomorrow — DACA is down the road,” he said. “And we want to fix DACA, we think this needs to be addressed...but we should not be holding hostage the military for this.”

It was another example of some defense leaders’ views finding a receptive audience with the GOP leadership. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has been reiterating the same talking point all week. On Tuesday, Thornberry told defense reporters that Democrats were playing “political games” and suggested they had no interest in agreeing on a DACA fix or passing a budget. Just yesterday, he said on Fox News that "the military is being held hostage to these other political issues.”

But the GOP is far from united on the path to fully funding a government. Sen. Lindsey Graham argued yesterday that Republicans need to compromise: accept an immigration deal to secure more money for the military.

“For a Republican to believe that we will get all of the defense funding that we desperately want and need, and we’ll deal with [immigration] later — how naive can you be?” Graham said at the American Enterprise Institute.