The Republican chairs of the Senate and House Armed Services committees take to the op-ed page in Friday’s Wall Street Journal (paywall) to push back on President Trump’s recent request to trim the defense budget for fiscal 2020.
The Trump administration has reportedly asked the Pentagon to prepare for a $700 billion budget, down from $716 billion for fiscal 2019 and $33 billion less than the White House’s original plan.
“Any cut in the defense budget would be a senseless step backward,” write Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, adding that a “last-minute directive to cut $33 billion from defense would be dangerous.”
“Recent reports suggest this proposed $33 billion cut was prompted by concern about the growing national debt. We share this concern. Failing to address this challenge, especially through entitlement reform, will have profound consequences for the economy and national security.”
“We also acknowledge there is money to be saved in the Pentagon. But deliberate reform—not capricious last-minute cuts—is the way to achieve savings. … [C]utting defense will not close the deficit. The deficit would keep growing even if we eliminated the entire Pentagon budget. The president and Congress should not be duped into a false choice: rebuild our military or accept deep and growing deficits. … President Trump can prevent this $33 billion cut and the resulting damage by ordering the Pentagon to move forward with the $733 billion budget he originally proposed for 2020. We cannot and should not balance our budget on the backs of America’s troops. Too much is at stake. This is a time to follow through on the progress of the past two years and give our troops the sustained, sufficient, predictable funding they deserve.”
We asked the budget watchdogs at Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget what would happen to the deficit in the unthinkable case that money for the Pentagon got eliminated entirely, as in Inhofe and Thornberry’s hypothetical. Here’s the CRFB’s response:
The deficit would keep growing if defense spending were zeroed out, albeit from a lower level and at a slower pace. To illustrate this, our policy team pulled some numbers together to illustrate the deficit in the hypothetical scenario where all defense spending stopped immediately. (An immediate stop couldn’t happen in reality, because some defense spending that is being spent this year was allocated in prior years.)
You’ll note that the deficit would drop in the year that we stopped all defense spending but the annual deficit would continue to grow. The growth would be a bit slower than it otherwise would. Under CBO’s baseline projection, which generally assumes no change in law, the deficit would grow by about $550 billion between 2019 and 2028, from $981 billion to $1,526 billion. Under the scenario where we zeroed out defense spending, the deficit would only grow by about $450 billion over the same time period, from $312 billion to $758 billion.
The reason for the growth in the deficit is because while defense spending is growing, it is growing relatively slowly compared to other parts of the federal budget. For instance, we published a graph (Slide 13 here), showing the defense spending was only 5% of the growth in spending between 2018 and 2028. The fastest growing programs are Social Security, health care, and interest, which accounted for 82% of spending growth between 2018 and 2028, driven by an aging population, rising health care costs, growing debt, and rising interest rates.