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Trump’s 2020 budget to contain a big defense boost, and nondefense spending cuts

Russ Vought confirms end-run around spending caps for defense while axing to nondefense appropriations in 2020 budget request

Boxes containing President Donald Trump’s budget request for FY2019 are unpacked by staff in the House Budget Committee hearing room, Feb. 12, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Boxes containing President Donald Trump’s budget request for FY2019 are unpacked by staff in the House Budget Committee hearing room, Feb. 12, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House’s top budget official confirmed plans to do an end-run around statutory spending caps for defense and add substantially to the off-budget overseas warfighting accounts, while simultaneously taking an ax to nondefense appropriations in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget request.

In an opinion piece published online in RealClearPolitics, Office and Management and Budget acting Director Russ Vought laid out a case for boosting the Overseas Contingency Operations ledger well beyond what the Trump administration and Congress have sought in recent years.

“Fiscal conservatives may feel uncomfortable using OCO in this way,” Vought wrote. “Yet, as long as Congressional Democrats insist on demanding more social spending in exchange for continuing to fund defense spending, expanding the use of OCO funds remains the administration’s only fiscally responsible option in meeting national security needs while avoiding yet another increase to the spending caps.”

Trump is expected to propose adding $174 billion in OCO funding allowed outside the caps, on top of the statutorily required cap of $576 billion for fiscal 2020 under the 2011 deficit reduction law. That would mean a total defense-related budget allocation of $750 billion, or $34 billion more than what Congress appropriated for this fiscal year.

Fiscal conservatives have long criticized OCO as a slush fund that allows more deficit spending with little consequence. And in past budget proposals, former OMB Director Mick Mulvaney took a different tack, proposing Congress wean itself off the spending mechanism over time.

The defense OCO portion in fiscal 2019 was $69 billion, with the remaining $647 billion increased as part of a spending cap relief deal Trump signed into law last March. Trump’s most recent budget request, submitted last February, proposed a total of $733 billion for defense, with $73 billion of that designated as OCO.

Vought also confirmed that Trump will propose a 5 percent cut to nondefense programs, which the president floated last year, though it’s unclear what baseline the administration is using. If it’s a 5 percent cut from fiscal 2019 spending, the total nondefense allocation would be $30 billion lower at $567 billion; that would still require a $25 billion increase in the fiscal 2020 spending cap, which under current law would be cut to $542 billion, or 9 percent below this year’s levels.

“The president’s 2020 budget will meet the target of a 5 percent reduction to non-defense discretionary spending, by means of one of the largest spending reductions in history,” Vought writes.

The combination of proposed off-budget defense spending increases coupled with nondefense cuts has already triggered an outcry from budget and appropriations leaders in the Democratic House.

“President Trump has already submitted two extreme budget requests filled with destructive cuts that Congress completely rejected. Acting Director Vought’s op-ed confirms that the third Trump budget will be more of the same,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

Subsequently, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., piled on in a statement that such a proposal would be “nothing more than a blatant attempt to make a mockery of the federal budget process, obscure the true cost of military operations, and severely shortchange other investments vital to our national and economic security.”

The White House plans to send a fiscal 2020 budget to Congress in two tranches in March. The first portion is expected the week of March 11 and the second is coming the week of March 18.