By Joshua C. Huder
That’s not likely to be the actual headline but it won’t be far off. On Tuesday, President Trump outlined his budget proposal which will include $54 billion in additional defense and homeland security spending. Those increases are coupled with deep cuts at EPA and the State Department among other nondefense agencies. On the one hand, Trump is following through on his promise to enhance the military and ramp up immigration enforcement. On the other hand, it guarantees a broken appropriations process. The chances of this budget passing are not quite zero, but they’re really close. Sequester is the big sticking point. Following the Super Committee’s failure, this policy was triggered in 2013, capping discretionary spending for defense and nondefense until 2021. These are separate caps. The FY2018 defense cap is $549 billion. Nondefense spending cannot exceed a $515 billion cap. If Congress passes an appropriations bill(s) that exceeds either cap, it would trigger another sequester cut to remove the breach. Living under the caps isn't really an option either, since the FY2018 caps are actually $2 billion and $4 billion below the FY2017 numbers for defense and nondefense, respectively.
By only proposing a repeal of the defense cap, the President’s budget basically guarantees stalemate. Proposing a budget that overtly violates the defense sequester cap means Congress will need to revise sequester. This is not something that can be done through reconciliation. As a result, Democrats have enormous leverage in this process. So if Republicans want to pursue some version of increased defense spending outlined by the President, Majority Leader McConnell will need to break a filibuster by getting eight Democratic votes. He may be able to peel off a few votes from the other side of the aisle, particularly from deep-red state Democrats up for reelection in 2018 (WV, ND, MT), but he doesn’t have the votes to break a filibusters on the defense sequester or appropriations bills.
Until Republicans cave and allow increases in nondefense spending in addition to increases for defense the appropriations process faces a death-by-filibuster. The game will unfold in a very familiar way. House Republicans will refuse increases to nondefense. Senate Democrats will refuse increases to defense unless nondefense is increased as well. And they will march down the path of “a shutdown is coming” until both caps are revised or (in an optimistic world that likely doesn’t exist) repealed.
This is entirely predictable. It's a replica of the broken appropriations processes from 2013 and 2015. This is why the President’s proposal is not dead on arrival in Congress. It is dead before it even gets there.
We have a lot of experience with this budget game. Political posturing delays compromise until the last second when a deal is finally struck. The consequence for playing it again comes at the price of legislative time. Rehashing old budget disputes is a time consuming process in an institution where time is not abundant. Introducing a budget that guarantees a broken appropriations process will push back other Republican priorities. Tax reform, entitlement reform, infrastructure bill, altering financial regulations, amending EPA activities, energy regulations, and more will fall further down the legislative calendar. If those bills are pushed into the 2018 election year, the less likely they are to pass as election politics begins to consume the chambers.
President Trump’s budget proposal will keep his campaign promises but guarantees budget and appropriations dysfunction. The window of opportunity in the 115th Congress is fairly small and will only get smaller if sequester remains a sticking point between the House and Senate. Unless Republicans compromise quickly, many of their big proposals could miss the window of opportunity. If this game plays out like it did in previous years, the promises made on the campaign trail may be kept but will be more symbolic than substantive.
Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.