The White House released most of the details of the shutdown-delayed Fiscal Year 2020 federal budget Tuesday. I say “most” for two reasons. The first is that Tuesday was what many (inside and outside the government) called a “skinny” release. We learned the amounts requested at the department-level , and some asking points behind them, but the details will have to wait until next week. The second reason is that, unless the Pentagon’s Deputy Comptroller Elaine McKusker somehow misspoke, we will not get to see what’s called the FYDP (pronounced “figh-dep”), or Future Years Defense Program.
To review, the DoD’s budget is built from each office’s Program Objective Memorandum, which details how much money each program needs this year, and for the next four years. This year’s budget should be requesting funds for FY20, but should also show the amounts anticipated for FY21 through FY24. It’s how it’s done. Particularly for procurement programs, the budget justification documents lay out planned expenditures in minute detail. (For an example, see this FY19 Army budget justification document for weapons and tracked vehicles, starting on page 30).
Even without the FYDP, or the complete details, there’s still lots to digest. Watch this space for more details as the Pentagon makes them available.
A crazy process to here
Last year’s topline for national defense was $718 billion. This year’s request, which covers both the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons functions of the Department of Energy, is $750 billion. That’s a fairly big jump, but it wasn’t supposed to be this large. Since last year, the Pentagon had been planning on a figure of $733 billion. At some point, the president suddenly got worried about deficits, and directed everyone to cut their requests by five percent. That would have dropped the request to $700 billion.
But no one who follows national defense closely thought that $700 billion was adequate to continue to rebuild readiness eroded by years of irregular warfare or modernize to face the threats we’ll have to face in the future. Pentagon planners pushed back hard at the White House. Meanwhile, across town in the Capitol, the new Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, was telling reporters that $733 billion was “too high,” while his Senate counterpart, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, was insisting that $733 billion “should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling.”
Allegedly, the president bought the argument, and told the brass to go back and make it $750 billion. And here we are.
Busted budget caps
The problem with the budget as submitted, is that without a waiver of the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, there would be a sequester. Therefore, the DoD (somewhat reluctantly, I think) dumped a bunch of its requested spending into the Overseas Contingency Operations account. The “OCO” money, which is supposed to be used to fund the ongoing operations in the Central command area for responsibility, isn’t subject to other budget restraints.
When the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, it was easier (but not easy) to get BCA waivers. This year is going to be more difficult. Consequently, this year’s OCO request swells from $69 billion in FY19 to a staggering $165 billion in FY20 and $156 billion in FY21. That leaves the base budget at a “comfortable” $553 billion.
There’s just one problem. Even some powerful Republicans are not comfortable with this budget trick.
Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member on the HASC, told a reporter for DefenseOne, “I don’t think this was the Pentagon’s idea. It makes the admin—or at least OMB—less relevant because everybody knows Congress would never agree to this giant OCO increase on its own. I confess, the reasoning behind doing it that way is not clear to me.”
Of course, also buried in the budget request is more money for a border wall. If the president’s declaration of national emergency survives Congress, and he goes ahead with taking money from the military construction account as planned, don’t expect the Democratic House of Representatives to go along with putting any finding for border security into the defense budget.
In the end, only one thing is certain: this year’s budget process will not go as smoothly as last year’s.