How to Get More Money from Congress: Declare an Emergency

U.S. troops walk outside their base in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan

The Trump administration wants Congress to add $5.9 billion in “emergency” spending to the Pentagon’s 2018 budget. Except there isn't really an emergency.

The Trump administration wants Congress to add $5.9 billion in “emergency” spending to the Pentagon’s 2018 budget. Most of the request would go toward boosting funding for missile defense in the name of stopping North Korean missiles. Smaller slices would pay to add troops to the war in Afghanistan and to repair two Navy ships damaged in accidents. To these requests, Congress should demand offsets.

While the increase in defense spending might be popular in Congress, designating the funds as “emergency” requirements would exempt the money from budget caps Congress imposed on itself in 2011 to control the nation’s burgeoning debt—now at $20 trillion.

That means that instead of forcing tradeoffs among Pentagon programs, the measure becomes a slush fund that soaks future taxpayers. Worse, by using the emergency designation for activities that aren’t truly related to war or emergencies, the request threatens to destroy the cap and open fiscal floodgates. Doing so while cutting taxes could make the current national debt look mild.

$4 billion of the request would go to missile defense for new interceptors for the three major U.S. systems—Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, AEGIS, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)—plus various related surveillance and intercept capabilities. $700 million of the request would repair two Navy ships damaged in accidents last summer: the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. $1.2 billion would fund the administration’s 3,500 troop increase in Afghanistan.

Missile defense funding, naval repairs, and increased troop numbers abroad are the normal, everyday responsibilities of the Pentagon—not sudden emergencies.

North Korea isn’t attacking the United States, and U.S. missiles defenses were designed with North Korea missiles in mind. Even if they work well, these investments would have little short-term impact. As for the ships, though no accident is ever anticipated, mishaps that damage military platforms in service are inevitable. The war cost increase for the new troops in Afghanistan, meanwhile, would be minor absent the military’s bad habit of funding military personnel through the war account. Those 3,500 troops would still be in the military if they weren’t deployed, so their full cost is not truly a war cost.

Nor is the request due to a funding shortfall. Congress has not passed regular appropriations for the 2018 fiscal year, which started October 1. But the Pentagon, like other agencies, is funded by a continuing resolution until December, which keeps funds at about at last year’s level. That leaves the war accounts flush, since Congress last year repeatedly increased the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding them, from an initially planned $59 billion to $83 billion.

Meanwhile, the two houses have a deal on the 2018 defense authorization bill, which envisions defense spending increasing 10 percent to $634 billion, plus $66 billion for OCO. That includes a 4 percent increase in missile defense to $8.5 billion.

That total spending authorized is unlikely to be appropriated, however. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which was designed to limit debt, caps the non-war part of the 2018 defense budget at $549 billion. Under the law, that $84 billion excess would be sequestered—taken proportionately from all Pentagon accounts—to keep spending at the cap level.