Congress, cut the continuing resolutions so Defense can do its job


As we once again find ourselves hurtling towards the expiration of yet another continuing resolution at the end of this week, with no long-term budget deal in sight, it seems an opportune time to review the very real harms to the nation’s safety done by Congress’s inability to perform its most basic Article 1 function — appropriating funds to run the government — on time or with any semblance of predictability.

Democrats and Republicans agree that the 2011 Budget Control Act has been a failure, and that Congress should return to regular order in the budget process. We — a Democrat (and former Pentagon hand) and a Republican (and former Hill staffer) — represent this bipartisan consensus. While we do not necessarily agree on how big the defense budget should be, we both believe that national security requires stability and predictability in defense budgeting.

{mosads}The Department of Defense has received an average of $23.6 billion less in the base budget per year since the 2011 Budget Control Act caps took effect in fiscal year 2013.  In theory, the Budget Control Act should have at least provided stability in exchange for this significant reduction in funding.  By creating annual caps on defense discretionary spending, the DOD would at least know how much money it could expect year to year.  

However, even this small silver lining has failed to materialize because both the executive and legislative branches have created expectations of significant increased funding for defense every year since then.  The result of this mismatch between expectations and reality has led to defense funding levels that are less stable than ever.  As a result, the DOD has spent about 40 percent of the past six fiscal years under continuing resolution.  

The Department of Defense and the defense industrial base understand the immediate impacts of continuing resolutions all too well.  Continuing resolutions lock the department into the previous year’s budget for their duration.  Planned budget increases cannot begin until the end of the continuing resolution(s).  Under these circumstances, the department can’t even plan to the end of the fiscal year, much less into the future.  

Fiscal year 2018 is two months gone already, yet the DOD still does not know how much money it can spend over the whole year.  Even worse, the department cannot start any new programs or reallocate funds while under a continuing resolution.  As a result, the department is stuck: unable to implement current plans, start new contracts, or plan further into the future.

The strategic impact of the instability driven by the Budget Control Act is less well understood.  Building a successful defense budget requires balancing the size of the force (capacity) against the ability to keep that force equipped with the most modern technology (capability) and maintained and trained to tackle the full spectrum of military operations (readiness).  The larger the force size, the more resources are required to keep it fully modern and ready.  

Each year since 2013, leaders at the DOD and on the Congressional defense committees have assumed that a significant increase in defense spending is right around the corner.  Decision makers have, in good faith, elected to retain or, in some cases, increase capacity because it is difficult to shrink the force and even more difficult to grow it again when budgets increase.  However, retaining capacity has come at the expense of capability and readiness, which are both easier to increase or decrease in response to short term budget fluctuations.  Unfortunately, Congress’s inability to reach a long term budget deal has turned these initial short term fluctuations into long term structural problems.

The cumulative effects of holding force size steady or increasing while suppressing capability and readiness is an unbalanced defense program.  As it currently stands, we are concerned that the DOD is not adequately funded to keep the force it has fully capable, modernized, and ready.

Republicans and Democrats disagree, even within their own parties, about whether defense spending needs to increase, and if so, by how much.  We can debate whether the force should grow to match a maximalist strategic ambition, or whether the nation should circumscribe its strategic ambition to match a sustainable force size.  But we are agreed that, however the administration and Congress choose to make these trade offs, the strategy and the capability, capacity, and readiness of the force must be aligned and balanced.  The Budget Control Act is preventing rational and realistic decision making about how to achieve alignment between strategy and resources and balance in the defense program.

Adding insult to injury, the Budget Control Act has failed in its stated goal of limiting federal spending and shrinking the deficit. Over time, members of Congress who originally voted for the Budget Control Act expecting it to reduce spending over time have since changed their minds, denouncing the destabilizing effect the Budget Control Act has had on national security. However, Congress continues to be constrained by a bill that, due to turnover since the 112th Congress, was put into place by only a fraction of them — 37 percent of the Senate and 44 percent of the House have left in the last 7 years.

Republicans and Democrats from across the executive and legislative branches have denounced the chaos created by the Budget Control Act.  Having failed in its stated purpose, left the DOD underfunded relative to the size of the force, and inflicted continual harm on both the defense industrial base and the department’s ability to plan for the future, it is safe to say the law has been a complete disaster.  And yet, we cannot seem to rid ourselves of it.  

As Senator John McCain and Representative Adam Smith have noted, it is well past time for Congress to return to regular order.  We eagerly join this chorus, but are not optimistic that a return to normal budget processes is likely anytime soon.

Susanna V. Blume is a fellow and Lauren Fish is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.

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