Defense Secretary James Mattis made his case for a defense budget increase in his characteristically blunt and quotable style Wednesday in his first public appearance on Capitol Hill since his confirmation.
“America can afford survival,” Mattis told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, focused their testimony on the recent request for $30 billion for the fiscal 2017 defense budget — not the administration’s budget blueprint for fiscal 2018.
But Democrats on the panel expressed deep skepticism of the fiscal 2017 request, indicating the uphill climb the supplemental faces in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to pass.
The administration is asking for $24.9 billion for the base budget and $5.1 billion in a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.
Putting that much in the base budget would require Congress to change the budget cap law or else the Pentagon would face steep automatic cuts known as sequestration.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said it “makes no sense whatsoever” for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to request to increase the base budget only to trigger automatic cuts elsewhere in the defense budget.
“I don’t blame you for this,” Durbin told Mattis. “This is OMB’s job. And I don’t know why they’re playing this game with us. They need to waive the Budget Control Act if they truly want to provide money to the Department of Defense for the safety and security of the United States. And if they don’t, I don’t even know why we’re wasting our time with this hearing.”
Durbin also expressed skepticism about boosting the war fund before the White House has sent Congress its counter-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) strategy.
“$5 billion in overseas contingency operations funding is being requested without a strategy to support it,” he said. “In fact, the president’s new counter-ISIL strategy may not be presented to Congress until May of this year.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) also highlighted that the request called for $18 billion in cuts to nondefense spending without specifying what should be cut.
“With $18 billion in unspecified cuts to the domestic side of the ledger, how can we make a decision if we don’t know what the specific cuts will be?” Reed said. “That’s something that we would have to know before we could thoughtfully make a, I think, a judgment.”
Mattis acknowledged that the budget cap issue is “complicated” and echoed other national security officials through the years in calling sequestration a threat.
But he said the $30 billion — arrived at based on what the Pentagon thought it could accomplish with just six months left in the fiscal year — is needed to “to get our aircraft back in the air, our ships back to sea and our troops back in the field with refurbished or new equipment and proper training.”
“We must recognize,” he said, “that hesitation now to invest in defense would deepen the strategic mismatch between our future security and the military means to protect our people and freedoms.”