The Pentagon will be in a position next year to end defense spending caps, get a supplemental budget request and boost foreign sales for big defense firms, the House Armed Services Committee chairman said Thursday.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, said he expects restrictions on foreign military sales to be eased next year to bolster U.S. allies once President-elect Donald Trump enters office.
Under current rules, "We make it way too hard. It's incredibly frustrating for some of our best friends who want to pay cash to get American weapons," he said.
Thornberry said he expects the new administration to come to Congress with a supplemental budget request to buy 11 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the services, 14 more F/A-18 fighters for the Navy -- items omitted from recent negotiated defense authorization bill -- and to provide an increase for the sea service's shipbuilding budget.
In addition, Thornberry said Congress would move to end the sequester spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for defense, with support from the new administration. For too long, defense has been "held hostage" to other spending requirements, he said.
"There is a growing perception -- on both sides of the aisle, in both houses of Congress -- that we've cut too much from defense, and the Budget Control Act disproportionately damages defense [because] more than half the discretionary budget is defense," Thornberry said.
He rattled off the wish list in a discussion with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to open a Global Security Forum on the national security challenges facing the Trump administration at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Panetta backed Thornberry on the need to rebuild the military and restore credibility with allies but warned that "the biggest threat to our national security is the dysfunction in this town."
The Defense Department needs a set budget to plan and set priorities, but gridlock in Congress has led to a series of continuing resolutions on spending that have stifled innovation, Panetta said.
"There isn't a damn thing you can do to rebuild defense" unless Congress can work out compromises, he said. "Right now, we're got a Defense Department that has a high ops tempo and, quite frankly, low morale."
The House planned a vote Friday on the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate is expected to vote next week. The final version of the NDAA worked out by a conference committee called for defense spending of $618.7 billion, but actual funding levels are still to be worked out by the Appropriations Committees.
In a question-and-answer session at the forum, Thornberry was asked how the Trump administration should view defense spending.
"I would follow Teddy Roosevelt," he said, citing the late president's famous quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick. We need to make our stick bigger."
The quickest way for Trump to do that, Thornberry said, would be to "submit a supplemental request for defense early on to give us a head start at building back some of this capability. That would be the first signal that you need to send. Before you start moving troops around or making more promises, you need to build up a bigger stick."