Military Buildup Faces Tricky Congressional Path

A number of thorny challenges in Congress make it “difficult to see how a substantial buildup” of military spending could be enacted for Fiscal 2018, according to new analysis from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). The most likely way to achieve the spending increases that both President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans want is through “an eye-popping increase in OCO [overseas contingency operations] funding,” writes the report’s author, Katherine Blakeley.

The two key problems are the legal spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act, known as sequestration, and the reluctance of congressional Democrats to authorize high levels of military spending without parallel increases in domestic discretionary spending.

The BCA authorizes $549 billion for national defense spending in FY 2018. Trump ($667 billion), the House ($696 billion) and the Senate Armed Services Committee ($700 billion) have all proposed levels of military spending that would exceed that cap.

Lifting the BCA cap would require passage of a new law. Accomplishing that goal would be impossible without some Democratic votes in the Senate, and Democrats have said they won’t lift the cap without parallel increases in domestic spending.

In the last few years, Congress has avoided this logjam by pushing additional defense funding into the OCO account. As emergency funding, OCO money—which is intended to fund wartime operations—is not subject to the BCA cap.

But this year, the House would need to spend $118.6 billion in OCO funds to meet their defense spending goals, and Trump would need $147.5 billion, according to CSBA’s report. Congress has not authorized that much OCO spending since Fiscal 2011, and the 17-year average for OCO spending is $99 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

While Senate Democrats may balk at a substantial OCO increase, Blakely says it’s still the best hope for a military buildup in FY 2018. With Congress in the midst of its August recess and a busy legislative schedule waiting for them on their return, however, there may not be enough time to work out a deal.

Blakely says it is likely that FY 2018 “will begin with a several-month-long continuing resolution, rather than a substantial increase in defense spending.”