When former FBI Director James Comey testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he referred to conversations with President Donald Trump as “a very disturbing thing. Very concerning.” While politicians and pundits characterized the president’s alleged comments as obstruction of justice, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) had another take. He defended the president by saying Trump is “new at this” and “learning as he goes.”
In Speaker Ryan, the president has an expert partner willing to try to enact his plan to pay for his vision of government and America’s place in the world. Ryan, a former vice presidential candidate, is also a former budget committee chairman famous for his efforts to shred the social safety net while heaping tax breaks on the wealthiest few Americans; he knows a thing or two about writing a budget blueprint. While Trump’s initial budget proposal released earlier this year earned widespread criticism even from Republican lawmakers, the 2018 budget proposal released by House Republican leaders today reflects the president’s imbalanced approach to national security that slashes critical tools of American power.
The House budget resolution includes many of the same misguided goals proposed by President Trump, including a lopsided prioritization of the military without the diplomatic, economic, and technological resources needed to deal with a complex international threat environment. The budget resolution proposes even more spending for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) than the Trump budget did. It reduces resources for U.S. diplomatic engagement with allies and adversaries; ignores refugees displaced by conflict; and guts crucial scientific efforts to research, plan for, and mitigate climate change.
Despite pledges to go their own way, Republican leaders are mainstreaming the president’s reckless worldviews.
A lopsided and shortsighted approach to national security
The House budget for the 2018 fiscal year echoes the president’s call for a greater emphasis on force and the diminution of diplomacy. It would increase the DOD’s base budget by $72.3 billion above the levels set forth in current law—to $621.5 billion—and would add $75 billion to the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, about half of which does not actually fund overseas contingencies. The result of this extra money totals $696.5 billion for the defense budget, an increase of 12 percent more than this year. This boost spares the Pentagon from facing the same budget pressures as the rest of the government. But it also comes at a time when U.S. forces are the most-funded and best-equipped in the world and in the wake of news that the DOD ignored recommendations to cut billions in bureaucratic excess. The right approach to defense spending is to tie the funding to actual requirements and address long-term systemic waste.
Of course, the armed forces are just one component in the arsenal of American security. The United States is strongest when it engages in the world community and leads with its democratic values, works with other nations to prevent and confront common threats, and facilitates the exchange of goods and culture. While the House budget falls short of the 48 percent cut to international affairs programs over the next decade proposed in the Trump budget—which included a jaw-dropping request to cut the State Department by one-third this year—it would still cut international affairs programs by 37 percent over the next 10 years.
American foreign service officers, diplomats, and aid workers are deployed to the front lines of strife and in almost every major city around the globe, working to reduce the likelihood of conflict and to promote American leadership. As the former commander of U.S. Central Command, Secretary of Defense James Mattis once testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, saying “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” By undercutting America’s diplomats, the House budget makes it more likely the United States must confront new problems with force and with fewer allies.
Turning a blind eye to refugee resettlement during a global humanitarian crisis
The House budget resolution also does nothing to reverse President Trump’s isolationist attacks on refugee resettlement. While financially helping refugees outside the United States is important, it cannot replace successful resettlement; the latter is one of the most durable ways to stabilize refugees’ lives. Weakening the refugee resettlement program in the midst of a global refugee crisis is counterproductive to the nation’s interests and un-American at its core. The House budget does nothing to thwart Trump’s actions to cut resettlement that could destabilize overburdened refugee systems in the Middle Eastern, African, and European countries that for years have been hosting refugees in large numbers. By turning its back on refugees as the president continues to tout his anti-Muslim travel ban, the United States will also play into the hands of terrorist organizations and those who would do it harm by giving credence to the idea that this country is unwelcoming and does not care about the plight of refugees.
Besides the national security and humanitarian reasons to keep the refugee program fully-funded, there is an obvious economic argument to be made: Research finds that refugees integrate well in the United States and, over time, improve their socio-economic positions and start new businesses, thus contributing to their local communities. They help revitalize cities and towns that face population decline, industry shutdown, and, in turn, economic hardship. Another recent study estimates that over the past two decades, refugees put $21,000 more per person into the system through taxes than they received in benefits. Vietnamese refugee families, for example, have revitalized some struggling parts of Oklahoma City, and Somalis in Lewiston, Maine, revived the town by opening up new businesses. Crippling a refugee program that advances national security, rescues those in need, and helps create new jobs and grow the economies of local communities will likely cause untold harm.
While the budget resolution ignores refugee resettlement, it proposes dramatic increases in spending on immigration enforcement along the border and throughout the country. The notion that “Building a Better America” requires deporting millions of hardworking immigrants already here and separating families throughout the country is reflected in the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 now working its way through the House of Representatives. That bill would fund a record number of detention beds, Border Patrol agents, and immigration enforcement officers, and it would commit $1.6 billion—a tiny down payment on the total costs—to an ineffective and unpopular wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that the president said Mexico would pay for.
Militarizing an ideological war on climate science
While some members of Congress deny the vast body of scientific evidence on the causes and gravity of climate change, Defense Secretary Mattis has embraced it. Mattis has said, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today” and that the military should “incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” National intelligence experts agree with Mattis and have concluded that a growing number of conflict regions around the globe share a common thread: Their economic, political, and social instability is exacerbated by climate change. In 2014, the U.S. defense strategy defined climate change as a “threat multiplier,” and an August 2016 National Intelligence Council report concludes that climate change effects will “pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades.” The report reveals that more frequent and severe extreme weather events are driving food and water shortages, exacerbating poverty, and escalating conflict.
The budget introduced in the House will undermine the ability of U.S. foreign policy and military leaders to recognize and respond to such crises as they emerge. The House budget cuts energy programs—including clean energy research programs—by $43 billion over 10 years and cuts environment and natural resources programs by nearly 28 percent over the same time period. This will radically reduce the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Pentagon, the State Department, and state and local governments to understand and prepare for climate change-related risks to public health, infrastructure, businesses, and communities. Congress’ budget is following a similar path as the Trump budget, which slashed funding for climate change programs at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by 28 percent—or $10.1 billion—from 2017 levels. These programs are crucial to supporting other countries’ efforts to track and curb their carbon pollution and climate change threats to food and water security, local economies and livelihoods, public health, and other conditions that underpin peaceful and stable societies.
The president and Congress’ assault on climate change science and efforts to curb carbon pollution prioritize protecting fossil fuel industry profits ahead of the interests of the American people—at the cost of U.S. national security, the health and safety of people around the globe, and the prosperity of future generations.
Looking strong vs. being strong
At its core, the president’s vision of American strength is a hollow set of sound bites. Besides draconian cuts to almost every program that serves working families and supports the economic vitality of this nation, President Trump has sought to look tough by boosting the Pentagon’s allowance. But while the president sells the image of strength, he is sowing weakness. To pay for his defense buildup, the president seeks to tie one arm behind Uncle Sam’s back by shortchanging American diplomacy and other proven tools to enhance America’s standing in the world and prevent conflict.
Under the United States’ system of government, the president proposes a budget, but Congress writes and enacts it. The House Republican budget presented an opportunity to more effectively prioritize U.S. domestic and diplomatic strengths. And it presented a chance to provide a stark contrast to the president’s vision of an isolated America that has fewer friends but more bombs.
House Republicans will take credit for not having implemented the most dangerous cuts the president asked for. But the House Republican budget still accepts many contours of President Trump’s radical worldview. It shortchanges the American people at home and impedes our ability to prevent and defuse foreseeable challenges to global security while prioritizing brute force as a means of dealing with a dynamic world. And the United States will be weaker for it.
Nathan Fenstermacher is the managing director of national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. Silva Mathema is a senior policy analyst for immigration policy at the Center. Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for energy and environmental policy at the Center. Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center.