President Trump has had very bad luck so far with congressional numbers crunchers at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.
As he and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) were treading water while trying to rally their party behind the GOP’s health plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, the CBO and tax analysts tossed them an anchor. A report concluded that the plan would have the effect of driving up insurance premiums in the short term and leaving as many as 24 million Americans off the health insurance rolls in the coming decade—14 million by choice.
Now comes a report from the scrupulously non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) with equally bad news about Trump’s plan to boost defense spending by $54 billion in fiscal 2018 while offsetting the cost with deep, dollar-for-dollar cuts in virtually every domestic program and federal agency.
Trump spelled out his plan in his March 16 proposal for essentially raising the legal spending caps on defense and lowering the caps on non-defense discretionary spending in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. He also sought to amend the current year budget by adding $30 billion more to defense and again finding partial offsetting cuts in other parts of the budget.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to pump billions more into the Pentagon to transform the four military services into an unparalleled global fighting machine. However, the CRS report dated April 3 and leaked to the Federation of American Scientists, concluded that Trump’s fiscal 2018 defense buildup would breach the 2011 Budget Control Act -- a budget law worked out by former President Obama and Republican congressional leaders that equally constrains defense and non-defense spending.
“In addition, the administration’s request for additional fiscal 2017 appropriations would exceed the current fiscal 2017 defense limit by $25 billion,” wrote analysts Pat Towell and Lynn Williams. They noted that in the arcane world of congressional budgeting, the caps on defense and nondefense spending for each year are “independently binding,” as Government Executive reported.
Defense appropriations at those levels for either fiscal year under Trump’s plan “would trigger sequestration, in the absence of the appropriate statutory changes to BCA,” the analysts wrote.
The Congressional Research Service serves as shared staff to congressional committees and members of Congress. CRS experts and other staff assist lawmakers at every stage of the legislative process — from the early considerations that precede bill drafting, through committee hearings and floor debate, to the oversight of enacted laws and various agency activities.
Trump and other White House aides belittled the CBO for getting its health care forecasts wrong in the past, and they can be expected to brush off the CRS findings as well.
The CRS findings are a setback of sorts but hardly decisive. Trump is not the only one who is interested in raising the defense spending cap in the coming years to beef up the military. President Obama and many other Democrats were in favor of raising the defense cap even higher – but insisted that there had to be equal increases in domestic spending as well.
Some Republican defense hawks including Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) complained that Trump’s proposed military buildup wasn’t nearly enough. In January, he issued a plan calling for a fiscal 2018 defense budget totaling $640 billion, or $91.3 billion above the cap.
There are many ways to get around the CRS findings, including altering congressional rules for appropriating funds or intervention by Trump’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is technically responsible for enforcing the spending caps.