The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act raised the U.S. national defense budget to $716 billion for the current fiscal year 2019. This was an increase of $82 billion relative to 2017, and begins to reverse the seven-year budgetary effects of the Budget Control Act, which forced significant cuts to previously planned defense programs.
The 2018 midterms could change the political and strategic calculus yet again. Rising deficits will force discussions of the United States’ fiscal health into the mainstream again, but a Democratic House will not likely seek to fund defense at the expense of social spending, while a Republican Senate will presumably not be open to any tax increases. And even if Republicans had retained a majority in the House, there would still be uncertainty because Congress would have to confront the same difficult scenario: how to sustain higher defense spending with a worsening fiscal outlook in general. Any electoral outcome would raise questions about the future trajectory of the defense budget and how to pay for the United States’ national security needs—as well as how to prioritize those needs.
On November 20, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a discussion involving experts in American politics, the federal budget, and national security strategic priorities. Following their conversation, panelists took audience questions.
President - Adaptive Strategies, LLC
President - Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
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Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.