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The Military Budget Circus: Enjoy the Show

Nothing you see here is real.

Words: Gordon Adams
Pictures: Ryan Pouncy

The whipsaw of the last couple of weeks on the military budget has stimulated a media frenzy. Is next year’s budget request going to be $733 billion, as the Pentagon expected? Is it going to be $700 billion, the way Trump suggested? Or, rather, is it going to be $750 billion, the latest bid on the table? Going, going, unreal.

Welcome to the military budget circus. Donald Trump has made it crazier than usual, but it is always a show. Whatever the requested dollars end up being, neither Trump nor the Pentagon will decide, not now; it is way too early.

At this stage in the process, none of these numbers are real. All the White House ever cares about is this total number, what they call the “top line,” (in this case, for what they call “national defense,” mostly the Pentagon plus nuclear warhead programs at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.)

Most presidents (except the eccentric Jimmy Carter) don’t really care about the details, just this magic number. The public whipsaw this year is unusual. This President flies by instinct, takes no detailed briefings, and is uniquely susceptible both to flattery and the last three-slide briefing he got. So what happened here?

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney probably got to him first. For all budget directors, the military budget is a wedge in a bigger budget pie, not a set of real policy decisions pushed through a money filter. Mulvaney cares about the deficit, entitlement spending, domestic discretionary spending, revenues, and, oh, yes, the military “top line.”

Trump instinctively says something like, “heck, yes, why not $700 billion; tell Mattis to take it down a peg.”

In Mulvaney’s case, he never cared much about the military budget in the House of Representatives, so add “I don’t care” to the list. Into the Oval he goes, with a deficit control message, showing the flag on fiscal responsibility (having already given it away with the tax cut last year). Trump instinctively says something like, “heck, yes, why not $700 billion; tell Mattis to take it down a peg.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon thinks it was promised $733 billion and planned for that. So they do what the brass did every year I sat through the meetings around the cabinet table on the military budget; they launch an appeal to the President over Mulvaney’s head.

This was a very special meeting. It looks like Mulvaney was not there. But Senator James Inhofe, incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was – most unusual for most Presidents, but with this one, you never know what to expect. A few charts, some nice flattery and words about a “strong defense” and away we go – the $733 billion number is restored.

Here the Trump version of the circus kicks in, in flawless New York real estate mode – this is a bidding war, a deal, and we start high – say $750 billion.

The only number the Pentagon really planned for was $733 billion. There is very little to the $700 billion plan; that number came too late; the Pentagon starts doing these drills a good year and a half before the budget goes to the Hill. And there is surely no $750 billion plan; it was never a planning target.

So the low number was never real, even though Trump appeared to endorse it. And the higher number is not real; there is no plan – just a real estate offer.

And in the end, none of it is real. I am guessing the final military budget, which we won’t see for another 10 months at the most optimistic, will be around $733 billion, which is where we started. But that is not up to the White House, or the Pentagon, or even Sen. Inhofe (you see, he is an authorizer – they can’t spend a dime).

It will be up to Nancy Pelosi (eat your heart out Kevin McCarthy, you’re in the minority now), Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer (yes, Mitch you will need 60 votes for this), along with the appropriators (who really can spend money), in a negotiation, you got it, with the real estate guy in the Oval.

That won’t happen for many months. But we will have lots of media fracas on the way, making it appear something is happening well before it really is.

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the School of International Service, American University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993-97 he was the senior White House official for national security budgets as Associate Director at OMB.

Gordon Adams

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