News Analysis

How GOP defense hawks delivered a massive military budget

By Tony Bertuca  / March 27, 2018

When President Trump was elected in late 2016, defense advocates readied for increased spending, confident his arrival would mean far larger budgets. But for nearly the past 18 months, that prediction has faced doubts and political gridlock, as Congress continued to rely on stopgap spending measures.

A new spending bill signed into law last week makes those long-held expectations reality, laying groundwork to grow the defense budget by a historic $165 billion over the next two years.

How did lawmakers get here? Though Trump's election set the defense boost in motion, it was guided by Capitol Hill's leading defense hawks, who relied on concerns about a "readiness crisis" and the accidental deaths of dozens of U.S. servicemembers to spur action.

GOP defense hawks are now halfway to their two-year goal, pushing a fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill through Congress that funds defense at $700 billion, or $80 billion above a statutorily mandated cap.

"The fundamental question that comes down in this bill is whether we're going to preserve the primacy of the American military in the 21st century," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said last week. "Yes, this bill is critical for many, many other reasons. But what this bill is ultimately about, what we fought for for so long, is finally giving our military the tools and the resources it needs to do the job."

'We knew we had to get ahead of it'

The effort to increase the defense budget began in earnest in December 2016. Republican staffers from both the House and Senate Armed Services committees, riding the wave of GOP success after Trump's November election and majority victories in Congress, met to produce a strategy to boost the Pentagon's fiscal year 2018 budget.

The GOP staffers, directed by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), determined the Pentagon needed $640 billion in FY-18 to address ongoing military readiness shortfalls and increase efforts to modernize its aging arsenal.

A key obstacle -- apart from political opposition from Democrats and GOP deficit hawks -- was the 2011 Budget Control Act, which does not expire until 2022 and caps FY-18 base defense spending at $549 billion.

The staffers knew they could turn to the Defense Department's war spending account -- known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund -- to pursue growth because the account is not subject to BCA caps. However, past attempts to use OCO to circumvent the law have been controversial and derided as "gimmicks" by critics.

"It had to be a big increase, and it had to be in the base budget," said a congressional staffer who participated in the discussions at the time.

The staffers were also grappling with a murky fiscal picture because Congress had yet to pass an FY-17 budget. According to GOP staffers, the Trump administration's transition committee had requested a pause in the appropriations process so the new president could order a defense supplemental in his first 100 days.

But perhaps the largest obstacle, staffers said, was Mick Mulvaney, tapped to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

In December 2016 Trump announced Mulvaney, then a Tea Party-backed congressman, would be his pick for OMB's top job. Mulvaney was a famous deficit hawk in Congress and a vocal critic of the OCO account.

OMB did not respond when asked for comment.

"As soon as Mulvaney got named, the clock started ticking," said one staffer. "We knew we had to get ahead of it as soon as possible because he wasn't going to support a major defense buildup without major non-defense cuts that we knew were not politically doable."

McCain went public the next month, releasing a 33-page white paper that called for $640 billion in base defense funding and detailed new spending on military weapons.

That same month, he addressed the white paper at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, calling on the GOP and Trump administration to put defense spending at the top of their agenda.

"Rebuilding America's military will require spending political capital and making policy tradeoffs," he said. "That's why national defense must be a political priority on par with repealing and replacing Obamacare, rebuilding infrastructure, and reforming the tax code -- indeed, more so, because national defense is job one for the federal government."

During the January 2017 hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) complimented McCain for putting a plan together. "I think the first person to put pen to paper has the maximum power," he said.

Thornberry continued the campaign later that month, writing a Fox News op-ed that also promoted the $640 billion figure.

"Congress and the President must pass funding for fiscal year 2018 at a level that adequately supports our military and begins to repair the damage inflicted over the last several years," he wrote. "President Obama's proposal of $584 billion to fund base requirements next year is clearly not enough."

At that point, both McCain and Thornberry were confident they had reset the conversation on defense spending, according to staffers. They were reassured when the Trump administration signaled it would request a $30 billion FY-17 defense supplemental.

But staffers say their optimism evaporated when Mulvaney in March 2017 previewed an FY-18 budget that called for a defense topline only 3 percent above the level promoted by President Obama.

The budget preview also proposed steep cuts to the State Department that both McCain and Thornberry found unpalatable.

"It almost doesn't matter what I think -- it's not going to happen," McCain told reporters at the time.

When the FY-18 defense budget was officially submitted in late May, McCain derided it as "inadequate," "illegal," and "part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress."

Thornberry said Trump's defense budget was "basically the Obama approach."

But Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chairwoman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said at the time the $640 billion budget supported by McCain and Thornberry was unachievable "unless something drops from heaven."

At the time of the FY-18 budget submission, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was the only senior Pentagon official named by the Trump administration. The deputy defense secretary was Bob Work, an Obama administration holdover distrusted by Thornberry's staff.

"It was basically uphill the entire time," said one GOP staffer. "On top of everything else, there was nobody at DOD besides Mattis."

Building the case

Much of Thornberry and McCain's case for spending more on defense was made months before Trump's election and rested on what staffers describe as a “moral concern” about the readiness of U.S. military forces.

"We often discuss readiness, but that is a vague term without concrete meaning for many people," Thornberry said in March 2016. "Recently, I have heard firsthand from servicemembers who have looked me in the eye and told of: trying to cannibalize parts from a museum aircraft in order to get current aircraft ready to fly the overseas mission assigned; getting aircraft that were sent to the boneyard in Arizona back and ready to fly missions; pilots flying well below the minimum number of hours required for minimal proficiency and flying fewer training hours than the adversaries they are being sent to meet; not having enough senior enlisted people to train and supervise younger ones and those who remain working very long hours day after day; service members buying basic supplies, like pens and cleaning supplies and paper towels out of their own pocket, because otherwise it would take three to four months to get them if they could get them at all."

A committee staffer said Thornberry's readiness anecdotes brought the issue into focus for other GOP committee members.

"We knew going into 2016 that there could be a readiness crisis," the staffer said. "But it was amorphous. It was difficult to get your arms around."

The readiness crisis came more vividly into public view in April 2016 when Fox News ran a story about budget cuts grounding much of the aviation fleet at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, SC.

Thornberry and McCain spent the following months trying to raise the alarm over military readiness, an effort which culminated in McCain's January 2017 white paper and the call for a $640 billion base defense budget.

At an early 2017 hearing, the military vice chiefs provided the House Armed Services Committee detailed examples of readiness shortfalls.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran, for instance, told the committee "time is running out."

"Years of sustained deployments and constrained and uncertain funding have resulted in a readiness debt that will take years to pay down," he said in written testimony. "Absent sufficient funding for readiness, modernization and force structure, the Navy cannot return to full health, where it can continue to meet its mission on a sustainable basis."

Meanwhile, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn told the committee only three of the service's 58 brigade combat teams were ready to "fight tonight" if called.

A GOP committee staffer said the hearing marked a turning point for the Pentagon.

"The language is changing with how they describe the readiness crisis," the staffer said. "As we demonstrated we were seriously trying to fix things, the services became more and more willing to discuss it."

Later in 2017, Thornberry further advanced the defense hawk agenda when he sent the House Budget Committee a "views and estimates" letter detailing his vision for a $640 billion defense base budget. Thornberry also accompanied House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) to an Army base in Tennessee beset by readiness shortfalls. Before the trip, Black penned an op-ed in the Washington Examiner in which increasing defense spending was not among her top three priorities. However, she eventually aligned with Thornberry.

But, staffers said McCain and Thornberry were most focused on winning the support of Mattis.

"Mattis was hesitant at first," said one GOP staffer. "He didn't want to be seen as undermining the administration's smaller budget request."

Mattis also hadn't completed his National Defense Strategy, which he intended to use to justify larger military budgets.

But Mattis came before the House Armed Services Committee in June and, according to staffers, helped Thornberry and McCain in two key ways: he acknowledged DOD's readiness problems and wholeheartedly endorsed every item on the military's $32 billion unfunded priorities list.

"I retired from military service three months after sequestration took effect," Mattis said. "Four years later, I returned to the department and I have been shocked by what I've seen with our readiness to fight."

During Mattis' June 12 hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) voiced frustration with the size of Trump administration's proposed $603 billion defense budget. "The president has to lead on this," she said.

Mattis, however, pushed for Congress to do more.

"The bottom line is, you are asking us to come in with a budget request beyond what we have now that would be even more of a violation of the act that Congress has passed," he said. "I mean, we need some direction from you as well."

A committee staffer said it was clear after Mattis' testimony he would back a bigger budget.

"As he goes through the first six months, I think he comes to realize he can't make do with his initial budget request," the staffer said. "I also think it started to dawn on some people in the White House that there is support here for a bigger number."

'The McCain and Fitzgerald were important'

Tragedy struck soon after Mattis' committee appearance. On June 16, the destroyer Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collided with a Filipino container ship off the coast of Honshu, Japan, killing seven sailors.

Two months later, the destroyer John S. McCain (DDG-56) collided with a merchant vessel east of the Straits of Malacca, killing 10 sailors.

A GOP staffer said the collisions had a powerful impact on Republicans and Democrats alike.

"The McCain and the Fitzgerald were important," the staffer said. "It was something for the lay person -- the Navy is not supposed to work that way. There was this whole chain of oversight that predicted it. It justified in their own minds that we are doing the right thing here."

The Navy, after an investigation, eventually found the collisions "were preventable" and a result of failure to adhere to sound navigation techniques, execute basic watch-standing practices and properly use available navigation tools. Though the service never specifically mentioned budgetary stress in its report, Moran criticized funding pressure in remarks to reporters last year.

"There's no question that the budget instability has driven hard choices that have caused us to take risk in areas that we would not have liked to have taken risk in," he said.

Trump signals support for $700B

Over the summer of 2017, Thornberry worked with Granger, who runs the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, to ensure a united front on a defense funding increase. Though Thornberry's committee publicly had the lead, Granger's committee appropriates government money.

In July, the House Armed Services Committee, with a bipartisan vote, passed a version of the FY-18 defense authorization bill that provided $621 billion for the base defense budget and $75 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding, of which $10 billion would be used for base spending.

But Congress soon left Washington for summer break and returned only to debate the terms of yet another stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

In September, Thornberry voted against a three-month CR, even though it included hurricane relief funding for his home state of Texas. The CR passed, stretching government funding to Dec. 8.

Then, Trump gave GOP defense hawks a shot in the arm.

On Sept. 19, in his maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly, the president said it had "just been announced that we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defense," even though his administration had only requested $603 billion.

"That was a big moment," said a GOP staffer. "We knew our work had paid off."

Thornberry and his allies in the House called Trump's comments an "explicit endorsement" of their strategy. More than 150 Republican lawmakers, led by Thornberry, sent a letter to Trump praising his speech.

"We agree a funding level of $700 billion is essential to make our military 'as strong as it has ever been,'" the letter states.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved its version of the FY-18 defense authorization bill in October and marked to a $640 billion base defense budget.

NDAA goes to conference

Thornberry and McCain took their respective committees to conference on the FY-18 defense authorization bill in October. Thornberry told reporters he was encouraged to see the House and Senate versions of the bill pass with bipartisan support.

"The House-passed bill passed with 79 percent of the House members voting for it," he said. "The Senate bill passed with 89 percent of the senators voting for it. There is a widespread consensus that we need to do better for our military."

The lawmakers ultimately produced an authorization bill that funded base defense at $621 billion and OCO at $65 billion.

Staffers said Thornberry was elated when the bill passed the House with a strong bipartisan vote of 356-70.

The 2,427-page bill passed the Senate by voice vote, and Trump signed it into law Dec. 12.

McCain left Washington once the authorization bill was passed to be treated for brain cancer in his home state of Arizona.

Meanwhile, Congress extended the continuing resolution to Dec. 22 in the hopes of reaching a spending deal before Christmas and avoiding a government shutdown. Thornberry, who lobbied fellow lawmakers to push for a final funding deal to avoid the impacts of another CR, likened his efforts to a "crusade."

But the stopgap funding measures, according to a GOP staffer close to internal party discussions, were part of a larger strategy being executed by the House speaker's office.

Ryan backs defense hawks

Thornberry had spent months working with Ryan on the defense budget, despite early opposition from Freedom Caucus members, who knew that increasing defense spending also meant increasing non-defense funding for Democrats, or "parity."

Ryan, according to a senior congressional source, went to the White House in early December to argue for the defense hawk budget increase. Mattis, who had begun working closely with Ryan on how to engage lawmakers, also lobbied for a budget increase at the White House.

"We kept telling Republicans to just hang on," said a staffer close to the discussions. "One more CR, then another, then another. But we had to break Democrats on parity."

In mid-December, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushed through Congress a $1.4 trillion tax package Republicans now hold up as their signature achievement.

Once the tax bill was done, a staffer said, Ryan and McConnell were able to focus on crafting an FY-18 omnibus spending deal that could win the support of Democrats.

Granger, the top defense appropriator, told Inside Defense in December most Republicans were committed to negotiating with Democrats to increase non-defense spending to facilitate a defense boost.

"I don't want to harp on the Freedom Caucus, but there are so many that came and they came to stop the spending," she said. "First of all, there have to be real negotiations, and the negotiators have to be as determined to not shut it down as possible. I think it's extremely important they realize a deal has to be made and a deal has to be made fast."

Congress eventually passed another stopgap continuing resolution through Jan. 19. The day before it expired, Ryan made clear he was in the corner of the defense hawks.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an unusual appearance, Ryan said 80 lives were lost to military training accidents in 2017, more than four times those lost in combat.

"The training accidents alone should be screaming -- 'fix this!'" he said. "The costs of these readiness deficiencies are really dire. And this is literally costing us lives."

But Senate Democrats, hoping to force Republicans to negotiate on immigration policy and to address the legal status of hundreds of thousands of undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children, forced a government shutdown Jan. 19 that lasted the weekend.

On Jan. 22, Congress voted to re-open the government and pass a continuing resolution through Feb. 8. Democrats agreed to compromise with Republicans on defense and non-defense spending.

"We won the shutdown and broke Democrats on parity and on fighting to tie immigration policy to spending," said a GOP staffer. "Democrats knew they had to make a caps deal after that."

The final breakthrough came Feb. 9, after an hours-long lapse in appropriations forced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), when Congress voted to pass a two-year, bipartisan spending deal that added $80 billion in defense funds for FY-18 and $85 billion for FY-19. The deal also increased non-defense spending by $135 billion over two fiscal years.

Republican staffers noted Ryan was able to help get the deal passed in the House with two-thirds of the GOP caucus for a final vote of 240-186. The previous spending deal in 2015 only garnered 79 GOP votes.

Ryan also sold the caps deal in the media, launching a public relations campaign that included high-profile television appearances and continuous blasts of information from his office.

Staffers say Thornberry united defense hawks throughout the process. "This was very much about morally hanging together to do the right thing," a GOP staffer said.

Trump throws final curve ball

The House and Senate agreed to a final continuing resolution to give appropriators time to craft an FY-18 omnibus spending bill that adhered to the bipartisan deal.

The bill, which provides $700 billion in total defense spending, passed both chambers of Congress last week.

Kate Blakeley, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the FY-18 defense spending bill in non-inflation-adjusted dollars "is the biggest increase in national defense spending in 15 years, just edging out the increases in FY-05 and FY-06 in current dollars." After adjusting for inflation, she added, it's the largest increase since FY-08.

She said the bill marked a "win for defense hawks in both parties," but not for deficit hawks.

"Remember," she said, "the House Freedom Caucus has been decidedly ambivalent about high levels of defense spending."

Ryan appeared alongside Thornberry March 22 after a tight 211-207 vote to allow consideration of the final $1.3 trillion omnibus bill. During the vote, more than two dozen House Republicans defected.

"Throughout this process, fixing our military has been the most important thing our speaker has worked for," Thornberry said.

Although the omnibus bill was opposed by many conservatives, Ryan said the legislation should be viewed as a matter of national security.

Ryan also noted that nine servicemembers died earlier this month in equipment-related accidents. Like the previous summer's Navy destroyer collisions, Ryan sought to connect the deaths to a Pentagon readiness crisis brought on by a lack of funding.

"Just last week we lost two naval aviators, F-18 pilots off of Key West, because of a training accident," he said. "We lost seven servicemembers in a helicopter crash in western Iraq. Nine people last week alone because of equipment. We continue to lose more American personnel to accidents and training incidents than we do to enemy fire. That is just unacceptable."

Amid opposition from conservatives who criticized the bill for not fully funding a wall on the southern border, Ryan said Trump supported the bill -- "no two ways about it."

The Senate passed the final omnibus bill late March 22, and lawmakers began to leave town for a two-week recess.

But the president sent Washington into a tailspin the next morning when he tweeted he was considering a veto.

A senior congressional source said Ryan, who was already in Wisconsin, spoke with the president by telephone to close the deal. "Both felt better after the call," the source said.

The president signed the 2,232-page bill hours later at the White House. He said he was only doing so because it contained such a large defense spending increase.

"My highest duty is to keep America safe," Trump said at the White House. "As a matter of national security, I've signed this omnibus budget bill."

But the president said he would never sign such a bill again.

"Nobody read it," he said. "It's only hours old. It became so big because we need to take care of our military and because the Democrats, who don't believe in that, added things they wanted."

Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at CSIS, said the defense hawks shepherded a historic increase into law, particularly given the United States is not engaged in large-scale combat operations.

"It's the largest percentage increase in the total national defense budget since FY-08," he said. "It's the largest dollar increase since FY-03. But the increases in both FY-03 and FY-08 were due to war-related funding -- the Iraq invasion and the Iraq surge. So we haven't seen a year-over-year increase in the base budget like this since the early 1980s."

Future fights inevitable

Though the bill is now law, defense hawks remain on the offensive. They still seek to close an FY-19 budget process that provides $716 billion in total defense funding. And, with the BCA cap levels returning in FY-20, Republicans and Democrats have begun staking out familiar territory.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said during a March 20 hearing the two-year, bipartisan budget deal would likely be the high-water mark for defense spending.

"You never know, but the odds are this is the largest the defense budget is going to be for probably about the next decade," he said. "So we have to make sure that we spend this money wisely and we also spend it in a way that doesn't lock us into sort of long-term obligations that can't be met, given the fiscal restraints that are coming."

But Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) likened the situation to winning an "initial skirmish."

And Thornberry indicated he is prepared to continue a similar effort in the coming years.

"It would be a mistake for any of us to leave the impression that this cap agreement and the money that flows from it fixes all our problems," he said. "It does not."