Dems brace for internal defense budget fight

Defense committee leaders look for a cohesive national security strategy that supports reductions without hampering readiness, but progressives might seek steeper cuts.

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The Defense Department's future budgets will likely remain flat, regardless of who wins the presidential election, but a budget fight could hinge on whether Democrats can deliver a cohesive national security strategy that supports reductions and readiness.

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said defense spending will likely remain flat or decline in future years due to economic pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing deficit "regardless of who wins" in the November presidential election.

"The pressures on the economy from the coronavirus pandemic and a growing budget deficit are just too great, I think, to see significant growth, if any, in the defense budget," Brown said during an Oct. 23 Brookings Institution event on the future of the defense industry base.

"Now I do believe that if Vice President [Joe] Biden defeats President Trump, the president's budget request may be a bit smaller."

But Democrats as a whole may not see it that way. Earlier this year, the Congressional Progressive Caucus pushed to reduce the topline defense budget in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in favor of domestic priorities.

HASC Chairman Adam Smith told reporters Oct. 21 he expects a contentious fight over reducing the defense budget if Democrats take the White House in November due to a wide range of opinions that have to be heard. "I see a big fight coming," he said.

But Smith stressed the need for Democrats to develop a clear national security plan.

"There has to be a national security strategy behind those cuts. It can't just be well I'd rather spend the money elsewhere. I don't like the Defense Department; I'm going to cut their budget," he said.

The chairman also expects a budget between $720 billion and $740 billion, but stressed the need for Democrats to come up with a national security policy should they control the White House, Senate, and House.

Brown said the biggest budget difference "would be how those dollars are spent," especially as challenges against China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and instability in the Middle East persist.

"To the extent that the budget is driven by those threats or risks to our national security, those haven't diminished, and nor will the budget," he said, while competing with other priorities, such as health care and climate change, which will likely require new federal spending.

Brown also speculated that defense cuts could come in troop numbers or weapons buys but that cutting funding for maintenance, training, and personnel could lead to a decline in military readiness.

"Our entire federal budget should be viewed as a national security budget. Some of the budget items are directly related to the military and others aren't and it's important that we strike a balance between what we've generally considered domestic spending and priorities and programs and what we traditionally view as national security or foreign policy or military spending objectives."

Brown added: "the United States is going to have to prioritize the development of emerging technologies over fielding and maintaining legacy systems," adding that those new technologies could affect the Pentagon's force structure, acquisition systems, and operational plans. "No matter who wins this election in a few short days, he said, Congress will "have to have greater visibility on the rationale and the analysis behind the decisions to retire certain weapons systems and to make the changes in the force structure that are required."

NEXT STORY: FCW Insider: Oct. 23

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