“We’re at $700 billion for the military. And, you know, they were cutting back for years. They just kept cutting, cutting, cutting the military. And you got lean, to put it nicely. It was depleted, was the word. And now it’s changing.”
— President Trump, remarks to members of the Coast Guard, Nov. 23, 2017
Since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly called for a “rebuilding” of the U.S. military to combat ISIS and “to keep America safe.” On Nov. 16, the Senate backed Trump’s expanded vision for the military when they sent him a defense policy bill, authorizing a significantly increased military budget. The budget, which tops Trump’s initial proposal, includes funding for new equipment and strengthened nuclear defenses.
A week after Trump received the Senate’s defense bill, during a speech to members of the U.S. Coast Guard, he signaled that the proposed expansions were already underway.
“The Navy, I can tell you, we’re ordering ships,” he said. “With the Air Force, we’re ordering a lot of planes.”
The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world, but Trump suggests that military spending has been cut to the point of depletion. What’s going on here? Let’s take a look.
Trump’s $700 billion figure comes from the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which the Senate signed Sept. 18 and sent to the president Nov. 16, after reconciling its version of the bill with the House version.
The bill authorizes $613.8 billion in base funding for the military and an additional $64.6 for Overseas Contingency Operations, which supports military operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The total for the 2018 budget comes to $678.4, a few billion short of Trump’s figure.
With mandatory defense spending factored in, the total military budget comes to $695.5 billion.
But there are a few major technicalities. First, the Budget Control Act, a bipartisan plan to decrease the federal deficit, caps the military’s base budget until 2021, and the Senate bill exceeds the BCA limits. Below is a table from an April report on the defense budget from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service outlining the limits. In fiscal 2018, the base budget is capped at $549 billion, $64 billion less than the Senate bill.
Second, defense spending, like all discretionary spending, is officially authorized each year by the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate. Members of the House are scrambling to come up with a spending plan to avoid a government shutdown, and raising the BCA caps is one of the issues being hashed out. Without a change to the spending caps, and without approval of the appropriations committee, the authorization bill is merely a strong suggestion for the military budget.
Republican leaders and military advocates have criticized the BCA limits, arguing the caps threaten U.S. national security. Since the November 2016 election, “calls to remove or raise the limits on defense spending have greatly intensified,” according to a Congressional Research Service report on the budget limits, commonly known as “sequestration.” With this claim, Trump builds upon these criticisms by suggesting the military budget has been cut to the point of depletion.
But his claim is both an exaggeration and an oversimplification. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Defense’s base budget grew by 31 percent between fiscal 2000 and 2014, with an annual average growth rate of 1.9 percent. The growth is a reflection of the fact the U.S. military entered two wars during that time period: The war in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003.
In 2010, the total defense budget peaked at $774 billion in 2017 dollars. The total budget is made up of the base budget, which covers the military’s regular operations, and funding for overseas contingency operations, which covers war-related activities. From 2000 to 2010 the total budget increased, a result of increases in both the base budget and OCO spending.
By 2016, when both wars had come to an end, the total budget was scaled back 23 percent to $595 billion. Despite the decrease, the total budget is still larger than it was in 2000 before the start of both wars.
In October 2011, then-President Barack Obama ended the war in Iraq. Four years later, in 2014, he brought an end to combat in Afghanistan. The end of combat usually results in a budget reduction, said Gordon Adams, who formerly served as associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“The military is operating at a lower tempo,” he said.
Over the past several years, the military has seen a dramatic decrease in OCO spending. In 2008, OCO spending peaked at $213 billion in today’s dollars. By 2016, OCO spending was $60 billion, a 72 percent decrease. However, the base budget only declined 3 percent in that same period, so the total budget decreased 22 percent.
The same trends hold when as a share of the GDP. The base budget declined 17 percent while the total budget decreased 31 percent. The difference reflects the fact the main cause of the declines are due to decreases in OCO spending.
To put the budget in a broader context: Even with the budget reductions, in 2016, the United States accounted for 36 percent of the total world military expenditure, according to an analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an international organization dedicated to research into conflict. In 2016, U.S. spending was nearly three times more than the world’s second-biggest military spender, China.
We detailed these facts to the White House, seeking a response, but officials did not respond to our request.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump claims the military has been depleted due to years of budget cuts, while bragging to members of the Coast Guard that the days of a lean military are over. With this claim, Trump glosses over important military milestones and reveals he appears to have little understanding of the federal budget process.
Yes, Congress passed a bill authorizing nearly $700 billion to the military, but the appropriations committees have the ultimate say in how much gets spent. Moreover, because of the BCA caps on discretionary spending, the Senate’s bill can’t be implemented as is.
With respect to Trump’s “cuts,” the decreased military budget reflects the close of two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. Despite the decreased budget, the total budget is still larger than it was in 2000, before either war began.
For trying to pass off budget decreases after the end of two wars as a gutting of the military, we award Trump Three Pinocchios.
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