The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massive infusion of spending ends era of restraint for federal agencies, Pentagon

The deal, signed into law by President Trump, will pump more than $500 billion in additional money into domestic agencies and the Pentagon over two years, the biggest increase in spending in almost a decade. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The massive infusion of cash approved by Congress early Friday morning is slated to lift the budgets of federal agencies and the Pentagon far beyond what they were at the start of the Trump presidency, ending the era of spending restraint that gripped Washington for most of this decade.

The deal signed into law by President Trump will pump more than $500 billion in additional money into domestic agencies and the Pentagon over two years, the biggest increase in spending in almost a decade. It ends months of budget squabbles and provides greater certainty for the government officials responsible for the military, disaster relief and domestic agencies.

At the same time, congressional aides and lobbyists say the deal will prompt a burst of activity as lawmakers, agencies and lobbyists attempt to influence where the money will go.

While Congress approved a 10 percent increase in spending for the Pentagon and domestic agencies — lifting the military budget to $700 billion this year and the domestic budget to $591 billion — appropriators on 12 different committees have to fill in many of the details. New partisan clashes are expected over sensitive issues such as where the Pentagon will spend its money and whether the Department of Homeland Security might try to apportion funding to a border wall.

“Beltway bandits, lobbyists and military contractors everywhere are probably popping the champagne corks,” said Jim Manley, who served as an aide to former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

The White House will make its positions more clearly known Monday when it releases its 2019 budget.

The bipartisan deal ushers in an era of spending unlike anything Washington has seen since Republicans forced President Barack Obama in 2011 to accept rigid budget caps that limited federal outlays for a decade.

Republicans’ decision Friday, supported by Democrats, to effectively bust those caps suggests that the attitude toward government spending in Washington has fundamentally changed and that agencies will have a greater ability to address their priorities.

“What we have been doing is lurching from one big crisis to another, and that’s very unsettling for agency heads and recipients of federal money and anyone trying to plan around the government,” said Alice Rivlin, the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration. “It’s good not to have that lurching, at least for a little while.”

But others argue that the respite from budget crises will prove temporary, given lawmakers’ decision to ignore the impact of the legislation on the deficit.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that the United States will have a $1 trillion budget deficit by next year — extremely high by historical standards — and that it will probably last for years.

“It’s fiscally dangerous, but politicians are willing to trade their favorite priorities for someone else’s and put it all on a credit card,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the group.

Civilian and military leaders are likely to welcome the move, however, after years when they had to repeatedly readjust budgets and lacked any certainty over future funding.

“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combination of” budget caps and temporary funding resolutions, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week.

The Pentagon won’t release the details of the new defense budget until Monday, but Mattis has already given a clear sense of his spending priorities.

The budget is likely to include a large amount of money to ensure that the military is ready for conflict. That means the Pentagon will probably make billions available to boost pilots’ flying hours, which have been cut back in recent years. The Navy is likely to get more money for ship maintenance, increasing the number of vessels available for operations, and the Army is likely to spend a lot more on costly training center rotations for its brigades.

Most of those training slots have been reserved for units headed to guerrilla fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mattis has said he wants more Army and Marine Corps units to prepare for high-intensity wars against adversaries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran.

The big increase in defense spending also is likely to include billions for things that weren’t on the Pentagon’s initial wish list, including $800 million more to upgrade Army M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The money comes on top of $1.5 billion already in the budget and will allow the Army to upgrade five armored brigades with the latest technology, military officials said.

Some of that heavy armor will be headed to Poland, where it will be in place as a check on the Russians. But the extra money for tank and Bradley upgrades also has a domestic component and will mean more factory work in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Alabama. Three of the four are key swing states.

“There’s a Trumpian piece of this,” said a senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his opinion of the spending plan. “We are going get those factories humming. These are good jobs.”

At the same time, there’s concern that the largesse could lead to a lack of fiscal discipline within the military’s ranks. The Pentagon, for example, reports that it has 22 percent excess base capacity that should be eliminated. The extra money may also reduce pressure to cut weapons systems that some analysts say are no longer suited to today’s threats, such as the U-2 high-altitude surveillance plane.

Ivan Eland, a former Government Accountability Office analyst who monitored security spending during the Reagan era, warned that defense contractors will be salivating over the new funding and that some of it could be wasted.

“When you try to spend money that fast, you just end up wasting it,” said Eland, the author of “Eleven Presidents: Promises vs. Results in Achieving Limited Government.” “People with the most political power get the most money.”

Some of the largest debates on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks — a complete budget is due by March 23 — are probably going to be over border security funding, $86 billion in disaster funding and $140 billion in emergency war funding.

These are big amounts, and they could go toward a range of items from computers to Trump’s wall. They may also be influenced by separate negotiations over immigration.

The package also delivers large chunks of money to health-care programs that Congress had left unfunded and a slew of other government priorities, ranging from $1.1 billion for dairy farmers to $20 billion in new infrastructure projects.

“On the domestic side, you have money for everything from child health to domestic spending and infrastructure to cancer research that has been sorely needed and extremely lacking,” said Stanley Collender, a longtime Washington budget expert.

One huge winner is the National Institutes of Health, which will receive $2 billion in additional funding over the next two years. Previous congressional deals directed money to specific NIH research — such as a package to cure cancer and another to cure Alzheimer’s — but the new agreement raises NIH funding across the board, according to Benjamin Corb of NDD United, a group that organized on behalf of local and state nonprofits across the country.

“We’re finally seeing money that will allow us to advance research to cure diseases,” Corb said. “It’s a huge win across the board to invest to this degree in science.”

Democrats pushed to get a lot of specifics into the deal, but many details remain vague. Republicans will have great influence over which programs receive additional funding and whether there are conditions on how the money can be used, such as not paying for abortions.

Meeting a Democratic priority, the agreement funnels billions of dollars to several key health-care initiatives — funding community health centers for two years, extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program for an additional four years (on top of the six that were previously authorized), and staving off cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that would have been triggered had the spending caps not been lifted.

The spending package also approves nearly $90 billion in disaster relief for hurricane-struck areas in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida, as well as parts of California ravaged by wildfires.

More than $20 billion is set to be steered toward Puerto Rico specifically, including $2 billion to fix its shattered energy grid, at least $11 billion for housing, $9 billion for infrastructure repairs and an additional $5 billion for its depleted Medicaid program.

“We’re extremely happy about this supplemental legislation. It’s a great start for the recovery process,” said Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rican government agency that lobbies Congress on behalf of the island. “That said, there’s much work to be done on the island and in future supplemental legislation.”

To some conservatives, the new spending agreement represents a setback at a time when Republicans control the federal government. “Democrats seem to have gotten more of what they wanted than Republicans did,” said Justin Bogey, senior policy analyst for fiscal affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In the end, enough lawmakers bought into the argument that an imperfect deal was better than none at all.

“You get some things you like; you give the other side things they like,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “That’s what bipartisan compromise is all about.”

Aaron Gregg, Damian Paletta and Carolyn Johnson contributed to this report.