After years of officials complaining that budget caps are forcing the Pentagon to make unreasonable cuts, experts on Monday argued that caps should actually remain in place to promote fiscal discipline.
Robert Hale, the former Pentagon comptroller who had to deal with the start of the caps after the Budget Control Act of 2013, said he would leave the caps in place, but that they should be increased to the level requested by the administration in future years. That's about $30 billion more for defense in fiscal 2018 than the caps set by the Budget Control Act.
"I would keep the Budget Control Act, or at least budget caps, because I think the process needs discipline, but I would raise them for defense and probably nondefense also," Hale said at a Brookings Institution event.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agreed that budget caps "make sense," but that they need to be set at a level people can live with. She also said the caps must be backed up my lawmakers saying what cuts they will make to stay under them.
"Think about how easy it is for a policymaker to come in and say all we have to do is put in spending caps and live by them. They haven't actually told you a single thing they're going to cut," she said. "They made it sound simple and basically free. We're just going to put a cap in and the budget will fix itself.
"Budgeting is about priorities, it's about trade-offs. I think it's important when you put in caps to say what kind of policy changes you would make to live within those caps, and then you want to keep them as a disciplining process," she said. "I think an arbitrary cap does more damage than not having one at all."
No matter who wins the White House, sequestration is set to come back into full effect in fiscal 2018 absent another budget deal from Congress.
Hillary Clinton said on her website that she would work to end the sequester for both defense and nondefense spending. Donald Trump told Fox News in 2013 that he thought all the dire consequences being predicted as a result of sequestration were "overexaggerated."
Hale said finding a "predicable and reasonable" funding level, for both defense and nondefense, will be the biggest challenge facing the next administration.
He also said the next president must deal with the overseas contingency operations account, which is meant to be used for wartime funding needs but has been used in recent years for base needs that simply don't fit under restrictive budget caps.
While an ideal situation would see the OCO fund go back to its historical use as a war chest, since it allows for better budget planning at the Pentagon, Hale said it's simply not practical because it would require moving "several tens of billions" of dollars into the base budget. That's not a realistic move under today's budgets.
"Regrettably somewhat in my view, I think the new administration will have to keep OCO, try to keep it back in its box as best it can, maybe make some small moves, but I think a practical solution is going to require that it continue," he said.