Top HASC Democrat warns tax bill effectively kills a military buildup

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Smith: Any major increase in discretionary spending — whether it’s defense, space or any agency — is unlikely following this massive tax cut.

WASHINGTON — The passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut deals a devastating blow to future efforts to increase military spending, warned Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee told SpaceNews that the huge tax cut passed on Wednesday with only Republican votes makes it unlikely that leaders will have political capital or ability to support a military buildup. With the appropriations process severely broken and Congress deeply divided over spending priorities, Smith said, the tax cut only adds more poison to the atmosphere.

“I think this tax cut passed today means there is not going to be any significant increases in any spending,” let alone the huge boost sought by the Trump administration and the defense committees.

Congress passed a defense policy bill that seeks a large increase in military spending — $634 billion in base defense spending for fiscal year 2018 — which is $30 billion more than the president requested and $85 billion above the spending limit set by the Budget Control Act.

“Even if you repeal the Budget Control Act, which I think we have to do, you then have to live with a more finite world of resources,” Smith said. Any prospect of increasing discretionary spending — whether it’s defense, space or any agency — following this massive tax cut can only be described as “unicorns jumping over rainbows.”

House appropriators sought last week to pass a 2018 budget for the Defense Department while delaying appropriations for non-defense agencies. But that plan would have died in the Senate. HASC Chairman Mac Thornbury (R-Texas) touted the effort as proof that Congress has “managed to reach bipartisan consensus on the depth of our military’s readiness crisis and the resources required to begin to fix it.”

Following passage of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, House Speaker Paul Ryan hailed the $634 billion approved for the military. “We here on a bipartisan basis are acknowledging the fact that we’ve got more work to do to support the men and women of our military.”

But the fight for more military spending is far from over, Smith said. “Everyone is in their own little corner saying: ‘This is what I want. And this is what I’m going to insist upon.’ And nobody is trying to work together to figure out how we can get something that can pass.”

Congress only has two days to strike a deal to fund federal agencies and avert a government shutdown before the current stopgap budget expires on Friday at midnight.

Smith said there is a strong chance that another continuing resolution will be passed to buy more time to work out a long-term deal, but he is skeptical that any agreement now or next month will be more than a short-term band-aid.

“Republicans for 10 months have refused to have substantive conversations with Democrats,” Smith said. “They know they need eight Democratic votes in the Senate to do anything,” he said. As far as long-term defense spending goes, “there are still no serious negotiations going on. What the Republicans are saying is that they are giving up on the appropriations process.”

If the GOP were determined to get a large boost for defense, “the first vote that we should take is to repeal the Budget Control Act,” Smith said. “If [House Speaker] Paul Ryan has a plan, he has kept it very much a secret. To get more defense funding they were always going to have to negotiate with Democrats. Now with the tax cut you put yourself in a corner,” Smith said.

The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees for months have called for a budget deal. “But the people who need to be talking aren’t talking,” Smith said. HASC leaders have been optimistic that some agreement would come together. “People cross their fingers, close their eyes, and hope that their piece will somehow magically get taken care of.”

In short, “if the Republican leadership were serious about a defense buildup, they wouldn’t have voted for that tax cut.”