At $597 billion in FY 2016, spending on national defense comprises the largest category of discretionary spending in the federal budget. The state of the military was a trending topic during the Presidential primaries with Republican candidates including Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio who offered specific, quantifiable increases in defense spending. During the Democratic debates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders called for an audit of the defense budget to target waste and Hillary Clinton called to “take a hard look at the defense budget” to prepare for future adversaries.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that under current law, spending on defense will rise by an average of $14 billion per year through 2026. However, spending could be higher if lawmakers rollback the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration (that were enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2009) again. Last December, CBO reported the impending sequester for Fiscal Years 2018 through 2021 will reduce defense spending by $53.955 billion.
It is now three months until the Presidential Election, yet the candidates have failed to provide clarity regarding their plans for the military, apart from continuing efforts to combat the Islamic State. Since the primary debates, Donald Trump has emphasized expanding the military with vague statements like, “I’ll build the military stronger, bigger … and nobody is going to mess with us.” His campaign website lacks additional clarification of his position. As of August 30, 2016, there is not one mention of either “military” or “defense” on any of his websites.
Given his broad position, NTUF assumes that at a minimum, Trump would support repeal of the defense sequester in order to build and strengthen the military. This new spending, $13.5 billion per year, brings the net annual price tag of his agenda to $35 billion. According to Politico, Trump also said we could make the military “so strong. ... But you know what? We can do it for a lot less.” We are left to only make assumptions on what he means.
Clinton’s defense-related proposals focus on expanding benefits for active members of the Armed Forces, including:
Extending eligibility for the Basic Housing Allowance for certain members;
Increasing access to child care;
Enhancing the Exceptional Family Program;
Expanding implementation of the Continuum of Service reform; and,
Continuing the Career Intermission Program.
A cost estimate of her reforms are unavailable, but Clinton unequivocally supports “ending the sequester for both defense and non-defense spending in a balanced way.” It is unclear how she would do this in “a balanced way.” Over ten years, the cost of her campaign agenda – now at $198 billion per year – exceeds the Tax Policy Center’s $1.1 trillion estimate of her tax hikes.
The candidates owe it to taxpayers to explain the cost of their plans and how they would pay for them, as well as if they plan on any cost saving plans for defense and the military. With Presidential debates coming up in late September, the moderators have an excellent opportunity to engage the candidates in a detailed discussion of policy. At the heart of that discussion should be how the next President will address the current budget deficit and dismal long-term budget outlook.