WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders say they won’t cut tens of billions of dollars from future defense budgets as part of plans to constrain government spending. But that doesn’t mean all military budget trims are off the table.
At issue are $130 billion in spending reductions that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agreed to last week in order to muster the votes he needed to become House speaker. The rightmost flank of his caucus agreed to allow him to take the leadership post after a protracted 15-vote battle.
McCarthy showed the Republican conference a slideshow Tuesday that reiterated his vow to cap discretionary spending levels for next year to fiscal 2022 levels, though a slide specifically singled out “non-defense discretionary spending.”
Immediately after, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters that Republicans “haven’t talked about reducing defense spending.”
Their comments were meant to assuage concerns from Republican defense hawks that the agreement could force Congress back into sequestration — automatic spending cuts enacted last decade that also reduced the Pentagon budget top line.
But Republicans who lead the House Armed Services Committee are already eyeing possible Pentagon savings through platform divestments and bureaucracy reductions while they plan for drastic reductions in nonmilitary spending. Some proposals could put them on the same page as many of their Democratic counterparts.
House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who argued last year in favor of a 3% to 5% annual defense spending increase above the rate of inflation, said he’s “not worried” McCarthy’s spending deal would necessitate defense cuts — even as he considers opportunities for savings in the Pentagon budget.
The defense budget accounts for approximately half of all discretionary spending.
“We’re going to start meeting right away about what I see as threats and challenges that we’ve got to meet — and what I’m planning to do — because we intend to do some cutting,” Rogers said in a hallway interview on Tuesday. “There’s some legacy systems and fat. There’s a lot that can be taken out.”
“I’m going to talk about that first, see where that leaves us and then talk about the threats,” he added. “And they’ve assured me they want to make sure we meet our challenges on threats. But we can’t continue to ignore the debt that we’ve got and the deficit spending.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, also said Wednesday he wants military leaders to improve missile systems and drone technology while cutting back on costly legacy platforms that have limited applicability in future fights.
“Large platforms still have a place, but they’re not as invulnerable as they used to be,” Smith said at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “The lessons that we’re learning from the fight in Ukraine need to be applied, and we’re grinding our way in that direction.”
“I’m disappointed in the last two years that we haven’t been able to mothball more existing weapons systems — cruisers, B-1s, F-22s and a whole bunch of other things,” he added. “But the incoming chairman of the committee [Rogers] and I are of one mind on this; we’ve got to be able to make sure that we’re spending money where we need to spend it for the modern fight.”
Lawmakers on the Armed Services committees blocked the Air Force’s plan to retire 33 Block 20 F-22s when Congress passed the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act last month. Those F-22s are now mainly used for training purposes because they are no longer capable in combat.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., also called for “tough choices on legacy platforms” at the Defense News conference last year, noting that “Congress has also created hurdles to divestment.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who served as the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel last year, thinks a defense spending increase is still possible, even as he floated other potential savings measures at the Pentagon.
“There’s no world in which any budget resolution that cuts defense passes the House,” Gallagher told Defense News. “If there is, that budget resolution would be dead upon arrival.”
Gallagher suggested the Pentagon achieve savings by “reducing the size of the bureaucracy” and “downsizing the joint staff” as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also suggested “reducing the size of the largest branch of the military — which is [Defense Department] civilians.”
“It’s very complicated, but that might be an option too where we can find some meaningful savings,” he said.
Democrats are less optimistic that McCarthy can enact his spending agreement without defense cuts. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told Defense News that McCarthy’s agreement would require the spending panel to look at “defense cuts as well” and that it could cut the funding for veterans.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who sat on the Armed Services Committee last year, read a group of 11 other Democratic defense hawks in a letter to McCarthy on Tuesday asking him not to cut defense spending.
And Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chaired the Armed Services Committee’s intelligence and special operations panel last year, told Defense News in an interview that the defense budget could go down.
“You don’t need to take a meat cleaver to the defense budget; you should take a scalpel to it,” he said. “There’s always, I think, some legacy platforms that could be retired.”
Gallego also suggested finding efficiencies “between reservists and active duty” while working with “allied partners for them to pick up certain roles and responsibilities in other areas so that we can shift our focus to [the areas of responsibility for Indo-Pacific Command or European Command] instead of being all over the world with the expenses and logistics that go with it, too.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.