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Defense to Get Historically High Share of Research Budget

Congress likely to resist cuts to nondefense R&D programs

The Pentagon and related security agencies would see big boosts in research and development funding under the proposed fiscal 2018 budget from the administration . (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Pentagon and related security agencies would see big boosts in research and development funding under the proposed fiscal 2018 budget from the administration . (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Pentagon and other security agencies’ outsize consumption of federal research money would grow further under Republican plans, while nondefense research spending would drop, sometimes dramatically, a new congressional report shows.

The Defense Department’s research and development budget would consume 56 percent of the federal R&D total in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, according to the Congressional Research Service report. That’s an 18 percent increase above the fiscal 2016 enacted level. When military research at the National Nuclear Security Administration and other agencies is included, the defense share of the federal research budget is closer to 61 percent.

Defense research spending would balloon by several hundred million dollars more still in the coming fiscal year if some in Congress get their way. But the current budget law will probably limit the extent to which Trump and company can realize these spending ambitions.

Mostly cuts to federal R&D

Assuming Congress does not alter Trump’s budget request, it would give defense programs their biggest share of total federal research funds in a decade. By comparison, the military research budget’s peak share of federal spending since 1980 occurred at the end of the Reagan-era buildup, when defense research devoured 69 percent of the federal research budget, according to historical figures.

The fact that Trump has proposed boosting defense spending at the expense of other federal programs is well-known. But the CRS report, first publicized by the Federation of American Scientists, lays bare the precise dimensions of that shift for the subset of the federal budget devoted to turning technology into applications and science into systems.

Besides the Pentagon, the only other federal department with an increasing research budget in Trump’s fiscal 2018 blueprint would be the Department of Veterans Affairs, with an 11 percent increase compared to fiscal 2016, the latest year available for the CRS analysis, which is titled “Federal Research and Development Funding: Fiscal 2018.”

Not only would R&D spending by all other nondefense departments and agencies drop in Trump’s fiscal 2018 plan, in some cases it would dip precipitously. For example, the EPA’s R&D budget in fiscal 2018 would be fully 46 percent lower than in fiscal 2016, while the Agriculture Department’s spending on such programs would be 25 percent lower for the same period.

Research plan in trouble

Under Trump’s spending blueprint, the Pentagon’s R&D budget for fiscal 2018 would be $84.9 billion, including war spending, compared to $76.4 billion in fiscal 2017.

The House passed last week a Defense spending bill for fiscal 2018 that would boost overall Pentagon spending — and spending on military R&D — even further still. The House spending bill would add nearly $1.6 billion to the Pentagon’s requested R&D total, including $36 million tacked on via floor amendments last week.

The GOP-run House’s relative lack of support for nondefense spending — research and otherwise — is dramatized by the fact that, 10 months into the fiscal year, the chamber has passed only the security package, which includes three other spending measures besides Defense: Military Construction-VA, Energy-Water and Legislative Affairs bills.

Despite the largesse the administration and the House have shown for defense in general and military research in particular, it is likely that Congress will ultimately not give full rein to these lavish plans.

First, Congress will resist the cuts to nondefense R&D programs, which have drawn flak from both parties.

Secondly, Trump’s plan to boost defense spending, while more popular than the cuts, still must be reconciled with the budget law, which caps defense and nondefense spending. Democrats have said they will continue to insist on a dollar increase in nondefense spending for every dollar boost in the defense budget. That Democratic push will limit the size of the defense increase Trump and others want.

Despite the downward pressure on defense spending from Democrats, both the defense and nondefense budget caps are likely to be raised. It’s just that the defense cap is probably not going to go up as high as Trump and many other Republicans would like, experts have said. And so the GOP’s ambitious R&D spending plans are likewise unlikely to come to full fruition.

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