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Thornberry: Pentagon budget cuts would be shortsighted

‘The world is not going to be any safer on the other side of COVID,’ House Armed Services ranking member says

House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, discusses defense policy at the Brookings Institution on March 2, 2020.
House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, discusses defense policy at the Brookings Institution on March 2, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Now is not the time to cut the Pentagon’s budget, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

“I bristle a little bit at the notion that of course the [Defense Department] is going to get their budget cut” as a result of the trillions of dollars Congress has approved responding to the coronavirus outbreak, Thornberry told reporters during a conference call. “The world is not going to be any safer on the other side of COVID.”

Under a two-year budget deal struck last summer, the topline for national defense in fiscal 2021 is $740.5 billion, most of which will go to the Pentagon. That’s a modest $2.5 billion increase from the previous year’s defense budget.

For now, Thornberry said, it is better to focus on getting the funding appropriated on time and moving ahead with the annual defense policy bill than to reopen that spending deal, unless there is bipartisan agreement to increase the Pentagon’s budget.

“I am concerned, like anybody else, that we are spending a lot of money to deal with COVID, and I don’t know what all of the future consequences of this spending and this debt will be,” Thornberry said. “My bottom line is: This pandemic is changing a lot in this world, and I do not want the United States to come out of it in a weaker military position than we went into it.”

Thornberry said he has consulted Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper about how much the Pentagon’s COVID-19 response had cost although he acknowledged that putting a dollar figure on those efforts is difficult. But the Defense Department should be ready to make its case if Congress decides to enact another economic recovery package, Thornberry said.

“The military and our national security efforts have real, legitimate needs that ought to be considered if we do another bill,” he said.

Esper and other defense officials have said the Pentagon will likely seek “billions” of dollars in additional funding, in part to help keep the defense industrial base financially solvent.

“I think it’s a mistake for DOD or anybody to just reflexively say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve had to spend all this money on COVID, so I’m sure we’re going to get another 20 percent cut from our budget,’” Thornberry said. “That should not be the way they plan.”

Thornberry said House leadership had discussed making the defense policy bill, which has been enacted annually for 59 years, one of the top legislative priorities once lawmakers return to Washington.

He did not have any details about when, or how, that might happen, but he said committee staffers were working out the logistics of the bill’s markup, which involves 57 committee members, plus scores of staffers and reporters.

The 13-term congressman, who announced last September that he will not seek reelection, said he is optimistic that this year’s bill will have bipartisan support. Last year, the House passed the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill without a single Republican vote in favor, and many of the House bill’s provisions were stripped out by the conference committee.

This year, committee members are trying to avoid red-line proposals that will cause the other caucus to reject the entire bill, he said.

“It doesn’t mean we just don’t talk about these things, but we can find a way to navigate around some of the political sensitivities,” he said. “Both sides are trying to find a way to work together, and that’s encouraging.”

One hot-button issue is the repurposing of Defense Department funds for the border wall. Earlier this year, the Trump administration drew bipartisan criticism, including from Thornberry and Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., after it redirected $3.8 billion of defense funds largely meant for procurement of weapons and equipment to help pay for the wall.

Thornberry said some of the more stringent restrictions on repurposing DOD funds that were considered last year might cause Republicans to vote against the bill and perhaps draw a veto. But more narrow language might be acceptable to congressional Republicans, he suggested.

“You may see something on this topic in the NDAA,” he said.

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