The Republican party has recently been known for being defense hawks, concerned about the growing domestic threat of terrorism and religious extremism, (though this has been tempered by a libertarian streak) and fiscal hawks, fearful for the long-term impacts that an imbalanced budget can have on a nation’s finances. Yet these two elements of the party platform have largely existed in silos and often their goals have seemed to be in conflict. President-elect Donald Trump appears ready to change that.
This tug-of-war was most notable in the so-called “debt ceiling crisis” of 2011 and subsequent “fiscal cliff” of 2013. After Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, growing concern over the size of the national deficit and debt, led the party to demand a dollar-for-dollar reduction in spending for every increase in the debt limit. Ultimately, it was agreed that a committee would be established to come up with a plan to cut $1.5 trillion over ten years, but if Congress failed to pass the legislation, $1.2 trillion would automatically be cut from the budget, equally split between defense and non-defense programs.
Unsurprisingly, a deal was never reached and the cuts were set to take effect, just about the same time as the Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire. Some Republicans were fearful that the deal, which would have reduce defense spending as a percentage of GDP from a projected 3.4 percent to 2.7 percent in 2021, could irreparably damage our national defense. As a result, Congress ended up passing a compromise bill that funded the government at previous levels, a significant retreat from Republican’s earlier plans to dramatically reduce government spending.
Donald Trump, a political outsider with a dealmaker’s mentality is not beholden either of these policy positions. Instead, as Byron York writes in the Washington Examiner, Trump has the ability to thread the needle in a way that satisfies the hawks in both camps.
Donald Trump has an opportunity to chart a new course for Republicans on defense spending — a course that would combine GOP hawkishness with a budget-cutter’s approach to Pentagon waste.
Although falling as a percentage of the federal budget, defense is still the federal government’s largest single non-entitlement spending item — about 16 percent of the budget in 2016.
In recent years, the GOP’s position on defense spending has been one long protest against sequester limits. The nation should spend more on the Pentagon, Hill Republicans have argued. At times, GOP lawmakers have seemed considerably less concerned about the billions the Department of Defense throws away every year.
Trump can change that. While the president-elect still wants to spend more on defense, he has given just as high a profile to his desire to cut waste. It could be a popular combination.
Even before taking office Trump has made clear that open-ended, budget busting defense contracts are a thing of the past.
“I don’t need a $4.2 billion airplane to fly around in,” Trump told Fox News Sunday in reference to the new fleet of Air Force One’s scheduled for delivery by Boeing.
Lockheed Martin, whose contract to deliver the next generation of fighter jet has grown to $400 billion, nearly twice the initial estimate, received a similar shot across the bow.
“Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Trump tweeted
Notably, Trump also met with top military officers for a “discussion about ‘trying to bring costs down’ on the controversial F-35 fighter jet and other high-priced Pentagon projects,” according to reporting done by Politico’s Jeremy Herb. Hopefully he also got them to explain the $125 billion in administrative waste that Pentagon officials discovered, but subsequently buried for fear that it would, according to the Washington Post, “undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds.”
Far from purely focusing on budget cutting, Trump also sees an opportunity to re-strengthen a military that is smaller than it’s been at any point since before World War II and is increasingly being outclassed technologically by its foes. As Maj Gen. Eric Wesley said recently, “Some analytic have said of 10 major capabilities that we use for war fighting, by the year 2030 Russia will have exceeded our capability in six, will have parity in three and the United States will dominate in one.”
That’s a frightening assessment of our near-term future, but it’s one that is going to be fixed with a laser focus on strategically streamlining and funding our military, not by building an army of bureaucrats. Trump is just the kind of leader to do that.