Neither Clinton Nor Trump Will Be Able to Fix the Pentagon’s Budget

A U.S. Army Ranger student, assigned to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, crosses a river using a single line rope bridge at Camp Rudder, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 7, 2016.

U.S. Army / Sgt. Austin Berner

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A U.S. Army Ranger student, assigned to the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, crosses a river using a single line rope bridge at Camp Rudder, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 7, 2016.

With the federal budget capped through 2021, defense spending will be an immediate first test of the next American president.

When the next president takes office in January, he or she will be staring down a 254-day deadline to either negotiate a budget deal with Congress or watch automatic cuts come to the military budget.

“I think the [Budget Control Act] is probably the biggest challenge that the next administration faces, [and] not just for defense,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of the Budget Control Act, the 2011 deficit-reduction law that all but accidentally placed caps on the federal budget for a decade. Its restrictions last through fiscal 2021, encompassing almost the entire four-year term of the next president.

The Pentagon has long argued it cannot operate effectively at these levels. Its current 2017 budget proposal, now under debate by Congress, calls for a total of $113 billion above the caps between 2018 and 2021.

“Whoever the next administration is, they are likely going to want to exceed those caps,” Harrison said. “They’re going to be put in the same situation the Obama administration has been in: that they have to strike a deal with Congress.”

And good luck with that. The Obama administration has been unable to strike a long-term budget deal repealing the Budget Control Act, although it has supported two smaller, two-year deals that increased Pentagon and non-defense spending caps. The latest of those deals will expire at the end of fiscal 2017 — that is, Oct. 1, 2017.

Related: ‘Road to Nowhere’: Defense Secretary Slams GOP Defense Budget

That means a Clinton or Trump administration will find itself facing a budget deadline just 254 days after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20. Pentagon officials are already warning of cuts that would come to the military if the budget caps return.

Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress since 2015. While Democrats might win control of the Senate, they are not expected to win the 60 seats needed to pass legislation in these days of rampant filibusters. Republicans are expected to retain control of the House.

“I’m not optimistic that we’re going to see enough of a shift in the makeup of Congress that it will break the budget stalemate we’ve had for the past five years,” Harrison said.

The Pentagon has used short-term budget deals, as well as an uncapped war budget account, the infamous overseas contingency operations, known as OCO, to weather spending reductions.

“If they can’t continue to get that, then you’ve got a problem,” Harrison said. “Then you’re getting cut down to the budget caps.”

Harrison predicts Clinton, like Obama, would fight to raise both Pentagon and non-defense spending caps. Trump would likely only argue to raise defense spending caps only, just as Republicans have wanted to do for the past five years.

“That’s the pattern that we’ve seen over the past five years,” Harrison said. “I don’t expect that that will change. Whether it’s Clinton or Trump, quite frankly, it depends more on Congress.”

So the stalemate remains. Or does it? Lawmakers, along with whoever is elected president, will likely find themselves negotiating a short-term budget deal, as happened in 2013 and 2015.

“You’ve got to negotiate a compromise,” Harrison said.

So start your countdown clocks — but also remember that few of the dire predictions mooted in 2012 came true.

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