DOD Budget: Will Congress Cut in 2024—or Hold Steady?

After back-to-back years of significant spending increases for defense, Congressional hawks may face stiffer opposition in the year ahead, with pushback from members of both major political parties. 

Opposition to defense spending increases from one wing of the Republican Party emerged during the protracted process to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker of the House. To secure the speakership, McCarthy reportedly struck an agreement with about 20 conservative lawmakers that included a commitment to cap discretionary federal spending in the fiscal 2024 budget at 2022 levels. 

If McCarthy keeps that commitment, defense spending would have to be cut from $858 billion in 2023 to $782.5 billion, the 2022 level. That’s a cut of more than $75 billion. 

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired Air Force brigadier general now on the House Armed Services Committee, doubts that will happen. In an interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine, Bacon said most Republicans won’t support such a cut.

“There is a small group who thinks the military is being overfunded,” Bacon said. “And there’s a perception that there are agencies that [are] not providing value to warfighting and things like that. But it’s a small group out there—and I think the military should always be auditing and trying to find out where it can save money and build efficiencies. But the [vast] majority of Republicans wants to have a strong military.” 

A similar split marks the Democrats, where the progressive wing advocates for cuts, while the “Blue Dog” moderate Democrats are closer to Bacon’s position. The group sent a letter to McCarthy on Jan. 10 opposing any reduction in defense spending. Signatories to the letter included Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), both members of the HASC. 

Even members from the small group of conservatives who made the deal with McCarthy are trying to push back on the idea that they support defense cuts. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) was among the holdouts against McCarthy through more than a dozen votes for Speaker, but when asked where he stood on defense spending, a staffer noted tweets from Roy sent Jan. 8 in which he said defense cuts were “never discussed” in negotiations with McCarthy. He said whatever cuts are needed to bring overall federal spending back to 2022 levels could come from non-defense agencies. 

With Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, however, deep domestic cuts will be hard, if not impossible, to push through.

Bacon noted how negotiators in recent years have settled on a formula in which “when you add a dollar to defense, you’ve got to add a dollar to nondefense funding, or if you cut a dollar, you’ve got to cut it down on the other side.”  

Bacon called that a “terrible concept,” though it has proven necessary to avoid government shutdowns. The Republican holdouts want a return to regular order, where amendments are debated, rather than pushed through without objection, as has been the case with many bills in recent years.

With regular order, “it’s going to be debated on, and I don’t believe cuts to the military would survive a vote,” Bacon said. “And it’s certainly probably not going to survive the Senate.” 

Congressional negotiators agreed to add $45 billion to DOD’s budget request for fiscal 2023 on top of a $58 billion plus-up the year before. Such increases passed with bipartisan support, but the potential for an unlikely alliance among conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats could generate a different scenario in 2024 and beyond. 

“I suspect after the increases that we’ve done the last few years, we’ll probably be trying to keep spending … at the current budget plus inflation,” Bacon said. “I suspect that will be where we go. I mean, I don’t know that. I’m just one member out of 435. …I do think there’s a desire on our side to cut spending overall. But we’ve got to make sure that we have strong national security.” 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the HASC’s new ranking member after serving as its chair for the past four years, has generally opposed increases over the Biden administration’s request, but ultimately voted for the increase after losing votes to oppose them in committee. 

In a fireside chat at the Brookings Institution on Jan. 11, Smith argued that the Pentagon should be able to invest and spend its money efficiently, even without massive increases. 

“Overall, the approach should be, let’s look at the budget we have and then what we need to do, and then look at it from a cost-effective manner,” Smith said. “I think part of the problem is … if you look at it and go, ‘We need more money,’ well then, you’re just going to throw more money at it. If you look at it and say ‘This is what you got, make the best of it’—and I’ve used this line many times before—I had a [venture capitalist] tell me one time that he has not yet seen the entity that can’t be cut by 10 percent and get better at what they do. If I say that to anybody at the Pentagon, they [gasp.] … But you need to get into that mindset.” 

Smith also pointed to increased investments from allies and partners as a way to boost national security without bulking up the Pentagon’s budget—Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and other NATO countries are all poised to boost their defense budgets in the year ahead. 

Air Force and Space Force modernization programs will be on the table as Congress considers the 2024 defense budget plan. In Bacon, a former EC-130H and RC-135 pilot, USAF has an advocate familiar with its challenges. 

“The B-21 is desperately needed,” Bacon said. “I think we need over 100 of those things. The B-21 gives us the chance to access any target in the world, through the toughest air defenses. Obviously, we’ve got to keep filling out our F-35 fleet because that’s going to be the dominant fighter in the world. To do any of this you’ve got to have tankers, so we’ve got to get tanker production. And our ICBM fleet is so old now, you cannot extend the life of it. You need to have those 400 ICBMs for deterrence. So I just think for the national security of our country, all these major programs are a must. Not that we want to use them—it gives us deterrence.” 

In the delicate balance of funding those programs within a limited budget, Smith argued that Congress needs to help by allowing the Air Force and its sister services to retire aging systems that are costly to maintain and less relevant to future combat, rather than blocking those moves in order to protect bases back home. In particular, Smith cited the Air Force’s efforts to cut B-1 bombers, F-22 fighters, and C-130 cargo aircraft. 

“Let’s get rid of the systems the Pentagon wants to get rid of. That is the continuous fight we have,” Bacon said. “You can save a lot of money if we get rid of those systems.”