Budget process puts defense spending in straitjacket
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Americans are understandably frustrated by the continued inability of Congress to pass a budget for the federal government on a timely basis. The result is often a compromise measure that just continues funding at the same level of the previous year because no new budget can be agreed to in time.

Alternatively, everyone puts all the increased “pork” into the budget pot. But that practice is not supported anymore. Too often, billions in special interest funding is tucked away, the budget gets passed with little debate or scrutiny, the deficit balloons and wasteful funding get pushed forward. 

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Why can’t Congress change this? Ironically, the current budget straitjacket was passed into law over 40 years ago in 1974 with the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. It has not been fundamentally changed since. So, 43 years later, the budget process is broken. For this past budget year, beginning Oct. 1, 2016, the federal government operated on a continuing resolution for nearly two-thirds of the fiscal year.

 

For the defense budget, this is serious business. A continuing resolution doesn’t allow the Pentagon to stop any old programs or begin new ones. Spending cannot ramp up — a normal process for buying new weapons. The result is delay of modernization, harm to readiness and no new research into better technology for our servicemen and women. 

There was a time when each congressional committee chairman would simply bring their spending bill to the House or Senate floor when they had the bill ready.

In a 1971 debate over the defense budget, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Stennis (D-Miss.) argued that, given no department had yet been funded by Congress; there was obviously plenty of money in the Treasury to take care of the defense needs of the country. So, he urged the Senate to pass a defense budget early in the year.

At the time, defense was spending $77.7 billion annually, while the United States government was spending a total of $211 billion and taking in $188 billion. In other words, defense was then 38 percent of all federal spending. Now, defense spending is 14 percent of the budget — $608 billion out of $4.2 trillion.

To make matters worse, for a considerable period over the past 10 years, defense has relied on a continuing resolution for its funds, even while over a trillion dollars was simultaneously cut from the budget. This occurred while the military was engaged full time in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and defending the country from nuclear and cyber threats.  

The problem is the 1974 budget act was not passed to restrain spending or curb deficits. It actually established “log rolling” as the highest order of budget policy. This was the phrase used by critics of putting all the government budgets together in one bill, known as an Omnibus Budget, with everyone getting their special favors and programs. The result was that spending always went higher and deficits kept climbing.

Even worse, the incentive of this process is for everything to pile up in Congress at the end of the fiscal year, where supporters of greater spending always have the threat of shutting down funding for the non-entitlement part of the government unless they get their funding priorities approved. When the current budget caps were put into place in 2010, it was an effort to force a grand bargain for spending restraint and reform. It never happened.

For defense, the impact has been terrible for two critical reasons. First, it is not just whether the defense budget increases or decreases. The budget caps bare no reality to the dangers in the world the United States needs to confront.

Second, without a budget agreement and only an approved continuing resolution (which is the barebones minimum Congress has to do to keep the government operating) defense suffered serious shortcomings.

As we noted earlier, defense planning was stuck with having to continue old programs while not being allowed to start new ones. As a result, tens of billions of dollars are wasted and modernization suffers. The bad guys don’t have this problem. Either tyrants buy what they want or parliamentary systems easily approve a prime minister’s defense budget request.

But the Senate rules require 60 votes just to consider legislation, let alone pass it. As a result, a threatened shutdown of the government becomes the rule rather than the exception. With the budget rules, everyone gets approved or no one gets approved. I know its budget blasphemy, but we should jettison the 1974 budget bill.

Congress should adopt a philosophy of getting appropriation bills done quickly, with the remainder of the congressional calendar year devoted to oversight and reform. In this way, when the defense budget comes up for consideration, it is not part of an overall huge spending bill where, if everyone doesn’t get everything they want, nothing gets approved. Under such a structure, it doesn’t matter how much money the EPA or NPR receives, one can argue defense dollars on the merits.

Will this happen? Many “experts” who have been in this town for years will say, "Of course not. That is not the way things are done." But this situation is harming our security and putting all the brave men and women in our armed forces in danger.

They don’t have the continued training they need nor the equipment they require, yet we are putting them in harm’s way and asking them to do their jobs thousands of miles from home. All the while, we are not doing our job here at home. 

 

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.


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