Monday was the day the Biden administration should have sent its 2023 spending proposal to Capitol Hill. But it’s waiting on Congress, who have yet to pass a budget for the four-month-old fiscal 2022—and lawmakers are looking to kick that can until at least March.
For some, like six think-tank analysts who got together on Zoom on Monday afternoon, it was supposed to be a kind of holiday. But without thousands of pages of new budget data to comb through, they mused instead about the current fiscal situation.
There were the usual topics: a continuing resolution, rising military personnel costs and—wait for it: Will lawmakers let the Air Force retire the A-10 attack plane? But there were also brand-new topics, including rapidly rising inflation and a new crack at reforming the budget process.
Before we get to predictions for the 2023 budget request, let’s start with where we are now: one-third of the way into fiscal 2022 without a budget in place. Lawmakers are expected to consider a new stopgap spending measure that would fund the government through mid March. The current stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, expires on Feb. 18.
The Pentagon’s budget is tied up in a broader federal spending fight. In December, Congress passed the 2022 defense policy bill, which added $25 billion to the Biden administration’s $715 billion request. But without an appropriations bill, Pentagon spending remains capped at $705 billion—and $0 for any program that was supposed to start this year.
An argument can be made that the delay isn’t all Congress’ fault. While all new administrations submit their first budget proposal later than the traditional first Monday in February, the Biden administration sent its 2022 spending plan to lawmakers in late May, just before the Memorial Day weekend. That’s the latest an administration has sent a budget proposal to Congress in at least a century.
And it left Congress just over three months to hold hearings and review the bill before fiscal year 2022 began on Oct. 1.
It’s unclear when the Biden administration will submit its 2023 spending request, but experts say it might not arrive until mid-April. Officials have said it definitely won’t go to Congress before the State of the Union address on March 1.
But again, it’s not all Congress’ fault. “You can release the next budget request without the previous one having been enacted yet,” said Todd Harrison, who leads defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think that that tends to be more of an excuse.”
Meanwhile, the administration is also expected to release a National Security Strategy and a National Defense Strategy, which are typically released a few weeks before the budget is announced, said Thomas Spoehr, who leads the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. The administration is also expected to release a new Nuclear Posture Review. Regardless, the later the budget is released, the less chance of it getting passed before the end of the fiscal year.
“It’ll push back committee work” and “push the whole process back,” Spoehr said. “In a year from now we’re going to be sitting around wringing our hands saying: ‘Why is the Department of Defense under a continuing resolution again?'”
And now for the predictions: how much will the Biden administration request for 2023? We’ll go from low to high.
Travis Sharp, fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicts $733 billion. “That’s based on the historical average growth rate for administrations that start off their first budget with a real growth rate somewhere between negative 5 percent and 5 percent,” he said. “They don’t come in and implement huge increases in their first year and they also don’t implement large cuts—they are somewhere in that muddled middle. If you average out the growth rate from year one to year two, it ends up…getting up to about $733 billion for FY ’23 topline.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, predicts $750 billion or $731 billion. “If I had to go put my money down on the tables in Vegas, I’m going $731 [billion],” she said.
Heritage’s Spoehr says $735 billion or $754 billion. “I apologize for being wishy-washy. $735 [billion] is my number if we go through a full year if we’re reaching no agreement on the 2022 appropriations,” he said. “If they appropriate a 2022 [budget] at the level that the NDAA says that I think it would be $754 [billion].”
Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, predicts $755 billion. “I think this is part of the broader political sort of machinations that the administration has with Congress, where they’re going to go lower or on defense than what they might really want and they’re expecting the Hill to come back and add in and provide them with additional resources for some of the unfunded priorities on the services lists,” she said. “This gives them the narrative of ‘higher than last year’ but not…necessarily in real terms, and they are going to be facing significant pressures due to inflation.”
And CSIS’s Harrison says $765 billion. Why? Inflation. If $740 billion “is where they’re likely to be in FY ’22, [then if] they tack on inflation above that, it gets you to about $765 [billion],” he said. ‘The political benefit of this is you put that in there while you’re [also] putting huge increases on the non defense side of the budget as well. And it least takes the defense budget off the table for this summer and all the budget debates.”
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