Trump taps executive power on military – with limits
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 31, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made the first move toward a major military buildup with a few strokes of his pen at the Pentagon on Friday, but the real work -- authorizing money to pay for it -- is up to Congress.
Lawmakers are in charge of approving the defense budget, and their willingness to fork over tens of billions for a military buildup is far from certain this year as huge political hurdles loom.
Trump, who campaigned on rebuilding the armed forces, signed a memorandum making it policy and directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to review military readiness within 30 days and report back with a plan to bolster operations.
“I’m signing an executive action to begin a great rebuilding of the armed services of the United States, developing a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools for our men and women in uniform,” Trump said.
Memoranda and other actions such as executive orders give the president sway over the workings of the Defense Department and federal government. But his vision has to go through lawmakers who have no requirement to follow it, highlighting the limits of his power over the size of the military and the challenges he faces in making his goals reality.
Trump’s memorandum Friday directed Mattis to look at training, equipment maintenance, munitions, modernization and infrastructure. The document also calls for a new defense budget, including supplemental funding as well as a game plan to address lagging maintenance, parts acquisition delays, manpower shortfalls, access to training ranges and training.
The document declares that “it shall be the policy of the United States to rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces,” echoing the president’s campaign promise for more troops, aircraft and ships.
The buildup could cost about $80 billion per year on top of a defense budget that has topped out over $600 billion, according to an estimate by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.
To jumpstart his boost in defense, Trump tapped the power of the memorandum, one of the tools along with executive orders that are available to presidents.
Memoranda are typically used as strong suggestions to federal agencies such as the Defense Department to act in a certain way, said Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine and author of “The New Imperial Presidency.”
They have limitations and the president cannot use them to usurp the power that secretaries have over running their federal agencies, Rudalevige said.
For example, the president’s memorandum calling for a federal hiring freeze last week caused outcry from veteran groups because it locks thousands of job openings at the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA Acting Secretary Robert Snyder used his authority to order exemptions for positions providing direct health care.
Trump has also used executive orders, including a temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. The immigration order riled some veterans who worried the ban will block Iraqis who worked closely with the U.S. The Pentagon said it was compiling a list of interpreters, drivers and others who could get exemptions.
Unlike memoranda, the executive orders have the power of law – though they cannot violate existing laws – and can be overrode by Congress and the courts. Over the weekend, the American Civil Liberties Union persuaded a federal judge to stay portions of Trump’s immigration order, in what could be the start of a protracted court battle.
Not all executive orders are so controversial. Presidents have often used the orders for Defense Department policy and management issues, such as pay increases, pay-grade changes and reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Phillip J. Cooper, a professor of public administration with the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University and author of “By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action.”
Amid a frenetic first week of 15 executive actions, Trump’s buildup memorandum caused little controversy.
With the document in hand, Mattis is now expected to produce a full list of needs that will eventually be handed off to Capitol Hill and be considered by lawmakers as they craft a budget. The Trump administration will need to shore up support among Republicans and Democrats.
“As we prepare our budget request for Congress, and I think Congress is going to be very happy to see it, our military strength will be questioned by no one but neither will our dedication to peace,” Trump said Friday.
What Congress decides to do with that request will be key because it is granted the power to fund the military under the Constitution.
“Congress keeps very, very tight reins on spending and authorization. … and that is not going to end anytime soon,” Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
The memorandum was greeted with optimism from Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said “ordering the Pentagon to take immediate steps to begin rebuilding our force is exactly the right step.”
Thornberry, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republicans have called for big increases in defense spending to counter what they say is a military readiness crisis due to declining spending and overstretched forces.
But tall hurdles threaten to test Trump’s influence and derail any new spending.
Democrats are gearing up for another budget fight this year. They still hold enough seats in the Senate to wage a filibuster and have demanded that new military spending must be matched with domestic spending on agencies such as Homeland Security and the FBI.
“You’re looking at eight Democrats signing on to whatever Donald Trump wants to do,” Huder said, in order to get a beefed-up budget passed through the Senate.
Fiscally conservative Republicans in the House have also balked at increased federal spending. They could work to block progress of Trump’s defense agenda in that chamber.
“I think there is some support for some of the things President Trump has outlined,” Huder said. “The question is, ‘How do you get over those budget hurdles?’”