If the vast majority of Republicans want more military spending than what’s allowed by law, what do you do? A pending House bill would change the law to allow that higher level of military spending.
But would it be wasteful or deficit-expanding, as opponents charge? And what happens if that higher defense budget passes without the existing limit technically being eliminated?
2011’s “sequester” law was a package of automatic budget cuts limiting almost all aspects of federal spending through 2021, or the end of President Trump’s first term. Originally enacted as a last-resort compromise between Democratic President Barack Obama and the Republican House, the sequester capped defense spending for the upcoming fiscal year at $549 billion.
But with Republicans now controlling all levels of the federal government, they almost all want higher spending levels than mandated by the sequester. The White House budget request recommended $630 billion in defense spending, already noticeably higher than what the sequester allowed. But Congress took even that a step further, with the House passing a $621.5 million defense bill and the Senate Armed Services Committee passing a $632 billion bill.
What the bill does
The Repeal Sequestration for Defense Act, labelled H.R. 1441 in the House, would remove the 2011 statutory limits on defense spending, clearing the way for passage of a potentially much larger defense budget.
Introduced on March 8, the bill has attracted 24 cosponsors, all Republicans. Introduced by Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH10), it has not yet received a vote in the House Budget Committee.
What supporters say
Supporters warn that the current budget caps hamstring the military in a time of increasing military need, with rising threats from both foreign nations such as North Korea and non-state actors like ISIS.
“We must afford our president the ability to restore military readiness and provide him with the necessary tools to protect our interests at home and abroad,” 141 House Republicans wrote in a May letter. “Sequestration diminishes our military’s readiness, impedes our ability to deter adversaries effectively, and ravages our defense communities across the country.”
What opponents say
Some opponents on the left and a few libertarians on the right reject the idea of raising the military spending beyond the sequester levels at all. Most Democrats are receptive to the idea of lifting the sequester’s defense limits, but only on the condition that all budget caps from the sequester are lifted. Republicans generally oppose this, since it would open a path to increased budgets for GOP-opposed Democratic priorities from Medicaid to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called “food stamps”).
A Democrat-supported House amendment requiring that any defense spending increase be matched with an equal increase in spending for non-defense programs failed 179–245. Only 12 Democrats voted against and only two Republicans voted in favor: Reps. John Duncan (R-TN2) and Walter Jones (R-NC3).
“Sequestration is a kneejerk budgetary maneuver that has done little to reduce deficits and instead has done tremendous harm to the economy,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA7), lead sponsor of that House amendment, said in a statement. “We need to make responsible investments without leaving American priorities hanging in the balance.”
Votes and odds of passage
The desire for a defense budget higher than the sequester-imposed cap is clearly present among majorities in both the Senate and House. Whether they even need to formally repeal the sequester cap is another story.
Republicans may just sidestep the issue altogether by passing a greatly increased defense budget, keeping the sequester in place, and putting the extra billions in a special Pentagon war fund called the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is not subject to the sequester budget limitations.
The House’s defense spending and policy bill passed overwhelmingly 344–81in mid-July, supported by majorities of both parties. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the legislation. Both versions feature defense spending levels above the sequester cap, though without the Repeal Sequestration for Defense Act having passed yet, which would allow such a move.
The full Senate has not voted on the Senate committee-passed bill yet, out of deference to Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) who left the capitol for brain surgery after being diagnosed with cancer. There’s no official deadline for the annual defense bill — last year’s version was not passed in its finished form by the House and Senate until December 2016, during the lame-duck session.