Annual defense and spending legislation are already behind schedule and face a minefield of controversy. The most likely result—short-term continuing resolutions through the election and perhaps longer—harm our national security, though not nearly as much as a shutdown would.
There’s a way out. Members of Congress from both parties support legislation to prevent shutdowns with automatic continuing resolutions (ACRs) while appropriations negotiations continue. This would discourage legislative brinkmanship, reduce crisis-based budgeting, and expand lawmakers’ ability to address other challenges, thereby providing a stronger foundation for national security policymaking.
Many members recognize the problems with short-term CRs. ACRs are far different, however, because they provide stable funding.
Appropriations legislation generally doesn’t let the Department of Defense (DoD) start new procurement programs (“new starts”) without explicit permission. Yet ongoing changes in technology and the global security landscape require DoD to adjust the amounts and types of military materiel it obtains and deploys.
Short-term CRs combined with the Anti-Deficiency Act inhibit contract awards due to funding uncertainty. An ACR, however, eliminates the risk of sudden spending cuts and avoids the waste from preparing for the chance of a shutdown.
New starts is a separate matter. Modern appropriations acts are detailed, in keeping with Congress’ power of the purse. They clearly link spending to specified items.
The most recent Defense Appropriations Act in the December 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, illustrates this. More precisely, the Act and its incorporated-by-reference explanatory statement give the executive branch precise instructions:
With regard to the list of specific programs, projects, and activities (and the dollar amounts and adjustments to budget activities corresponding to such programs, projects, and activities) contained in … in the explanatory statement regarding this Act, the obligation and expenditure of amounts appropriated or otherwise made available in this Act for those programs, projects, and activities … are hereby required by law to be carried out in the manner provided by such tables to the same extent as if the tables were included in the text of this Act.
In other words, the entire 414-page Defense Appropriations explanatory statement is equivalent to law. Assigning almost all funds to specific purposes is bound to inhibit new starts.
On the other hand, another section provides some flexibility:
None of the funds provided in this Act shall be available for obligation or expenditure through a reprogramming of funds that creates or initiates a new program, project, or activity unless such program, project, or activity must be undertaken immediately in the interest of national security … (emphasis added).
Though sweeping, this provision does little to empower DoD managers except in the most extreme circumstances. They can’t be sure that Congress will see matters the same way.
Appropriators could nonetheless ensure that new starts can proceed within well-defined guiderails. They could, for example, authorize them not only within an appropriations period but also in case of an ACR. These fixes could apply to some non-defense programs as well.
The balance between Congress’ power of the purse, managerial discretion, and national security imperatives can be adjusted in various ways. For example, the provision above could explicitly authorize reprogramming for equipment that receives DoD’s formal Milestone C approval, which makes items ripe for production and deployment.
Stepping back, annually appropriated spending is important in the budget and for the common defense. It is not, however, projected to grow as a share of the economy in the long run, unlike certain benefits programs.
ACRs would reduce the counterproductive drama around the appropriations process by taking shutdowns and visions of leverage off the table. This would almost certainly improve appropriations timeliness, deliberation and integrity.
In addition to healthier appropriations, expanding the space for resolving other long-term imbalances would help ensure that national security policy can focus on America’s interests rather than be dominated by budget pressures and deadline-fueled brinkmanship.
Greater certainty would help service members, equipment producers, and others involved in providing for the common defense focus on their duties.
ACRs would contribute to stronger national defense as well as a more regular appropriations process. Appropriators can responsibly resolve the new starts challenge, and these details can be worked out along the way. To improve our security and our annual appropriations, Congress should pursue automatic continuing resolution legislation while improving the process for timely defense modernization.
Kurt Couchman is a co-director of legislative strategy at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He previously served in the offices of several members of the U.S. House of Representatives.