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Military Capabilities

Change afoot for US defence spending, policy oversight

08 November 2018
Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Joe Dunford testify before the HASC in April 2018. Democrats are set to take control of the House, and will drive defence spending and policy changes. Source: DoD

Democrats are set to take the reins over defence spending and policy in the US House of Representatives, a shift requiring compromise with their Senate Republican counterparts on key issues like nuclear modernisation, the US Navy's bid to grow to a 355-ship fleet, and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

With the 2018 midterm elections decided, Democrats will take control of the House in January 2019 while the Senate will remain in Republican hands. For the former, the shift means Democrats will be setting the agenda and taking control of committees such as the House Appropriations Committee (HAC) and the House Armed Service Committee (HASC).

Each chamber writes and votes on its own authorisation and appropriations bills, which then must be reconciled before a single version is passed and sent to the president to be enacted into law. A Democrat-led House will now have to negotiate legislation with a Republican-led Senate.

While decisions have yet to be made on who will chair key committees, Representative Peter Visclosky, a Democrat from Indiana, won re-election and is currently the ranking member on the HAC subcommittee charged with appropriating defence dollars. However, regardless of who heads the subcommittee, a host of spending issues awaits.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained that one of the top tasks for lawmakers is grappling with defence spending levels after US President Donald Trump announced that he wants every government department to chop 5% off of its budget. As a result, the Pentagon is now building two fiscal year 2020 (FY 2020) budgets: one with a USD733 billion topline to cover all national security activates and the second set at USD700 billion.

"Something will have to give," O'Hanlon said. "Right now, the re-orientation towards great-power competition hasn't led to many cutbacks in force structure, Mideast deployments, or traditional priorities.

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