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Democrats pan Trump gambit to boost defense spending

February 26, 2019

President Trump’s fiscal-year 2020 budget plan will use an accounting trick to try to boost defense spending while cutting domestic discretionary spending, the White House’s acting budget chief said Monday.

Office of Management and Budget chief Russ Vought said the budget envisions a 5 percent cut to the domestic side in order to comply with Obama-era spending caps but that extra money for the Pentagon will be shifted to overseas war funds, shielding them from the caps.

Mr. Vought said the goal was to break a near-equivalency between the two types of spending that developed under President Obama, and continued in the early days of the Trump administration.

“As long as congressional Democrats insist on demanding more social spending in exchange for continuing to fund defense spending, expanding the use of [overseas] funds remains the administration’s only fiscally responsible option in meeting national security needs while avoiding yet another increase to the spending caps,” Mr. Vought wrote in a piece for Real Clear Politics.

If Congress doesn’t act, a 2011 law dictates that discretionary spending must drop by $71 billion for defense and by $55 billion for non-defense programs in the next federal fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1.

The White House’s move will meet resistance from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, where the debate is over how much to boost, not trim, the spending guardrails for next year.

Democrats were quick Monday to blast Mr. Vought for the plan.

“Rather than being honest and responsible about his budgeting, the president is choosing to deceive the American public yet again,” said Reps. John Yarmuth and Adam Smith, the respective chairmen of the House Budget and Armed Services Committees.

Mr. Trump last year had ordered agencies to scrounge for across-the-board 5 percent cuts in 2020. Originally that plan had included trims to the military, sending Pentagon planners scrambling.

But that could have eaten into Mr. Trump’s claims to have rebuilt the military after years of what he said was neglected by Mr. Obama.

Instead, the White House is expected to propose a major increase in the Pentagon budget, up from a $716 billion request in 2019 to $750 billion next year.

Military hawks have long called for simply repealing the caps, at least on the defense side of the ledger.

In lieu of that, the Trump budget would shift military money away from the base budget and hide it in emergency war-fighting money, known on Capitol Hill as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds.

That money, along with spending on mandatory programs like Medicare and social security, isn’t governed by the discretionary spending limits.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe earlier this month said the idea of using OCO designations to achieve a Pentagon boost didn’t bother him.

“All I want is the results,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Congress struck a deal last year to increase the caps by about $300 billion collectively over 2018 and 2019, with a slightly larger increase for defense than for domestic spending.

Now, with Democrats in control of the House, they will be looking to flex their muscle on domestic programs and say the president’s opening budget proposal won’t have very much influence on what Congress eventually approves.

Mr. Trump has already submitted two “extreme” budget requests that Congress rejected, said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey.

“Acting Director Vought’s op-ed confirms that the third Trump budget will be more of the same,” said Ms. Lowey, New York Democrat.

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