Congress needs to get its act together for defense funding

Congress needs to get its act together for defense funding
© Getty

It is back to school for kids in Washington, which means it is also back to work for Congress. A pressing issue is keeping the government open past the start of the fiscal year in a few short weeks. While that should have been relatively easy to accomplish with a budget deal in hand, it now looks like groundhog day instead. Congress needs to keep its eye on the ball. Defense bills need to pass quickly to keep the Pentagon on track to implement its new strategy. In order to move the bills, some sort of border wall compromise must be worked out, and the contentious provisions in the House version of the authorization bill will need to be dropped.

With only 13 working days left for Capitol Hill between now and the start of October, the path to keeping the government open without needing a continuing resolution that freezes spending at the same levels as last year is “nearly impossible.” House leadership has already scheduled a vote on a stopgap bill next week. Further complicating the outlook is the Pentagon diverting military construction funds for the border wall. It comes just as both of the chambers are elbow deep in conference negotiations over competing versions of the defense authorization bill. A fight over funds for the border wall could yet again upset another legislative necessity.

Getting a budget deal was a prerequisite to moving individual spending bills this year and next. However, it is now a chicken and egg question. Unfortunately, despite an ostensible deal to avoid “poison pill” policy riders that would halt wall construction, the bigger agreement spanning two years did not hammer out an explicit way forward on how to get both parties and the White House to agree on funding for the wall or not. The move by the administration to raid military construction accounts shows that lawmakers still have no strategy for dealing with the wall dispute.

ADVERTISEMENT

Defense authorizers cannot solve the border wall funding question alone. These appropriators know that any prohibition on the use of funds for the wall is veto bait for the White House. Still, it is the job of Congress to thread the needle and find a viable path to keep the government open. Starting the fiscal year with static spending is an unnecessary error that goes against important legislative goals. Because continuing resolutions freeze individual appropriations accounts at the same levels as last year, tens of billions of military dollars will therefore be misaligned.

While the difference between the 2020 defense spending of $738 billion agreed to in the budget deal and the 2019 spending of $716 billion is only $22 billion, the actual effect of the continuing resolution is greater for the Pentagon because the additional funding is asymmetrical compared to the budget request and often at lower levels. This negatively affects all accounts, but particularly creates problems for troop training as well as maintenance of equipment and facilities, the core of military readiness.

Furthermore, continuing resolutions do not allow the military to start new weapons programs or to increase the production of existing equipment. Last year, that meant roughly 75 weapons programs that were delayed by the prohibition in the 2018 continuing resolution on new starts and nearly 40 programs that were affected by a restriction on production quantity, according to federal data from the Congressional Research Service.

This year, those policy handcuffs mean hundreds of new programs that are needed to regain our military edge against Russia and China will not be able to progress until the freeze is lifted. Suspended programs include hypersonic strike weapons, missile defense programs, and new fighters, ships, and vehicles across the services. Worse, a “freeze” is in effect a spending cut for the military. This comes on top of the reduction that must take place to reconcile House and Senate defense spending levels.

The House and Senate must quickly figure out a way forward on major policy and spending disputes to cut $12 billion from the $750 billion defense topline in the Senate. Hot button disagreements between the House and Senate have been apparent since the start of the process, including how to balance priorities among high profile programs like fighter jets, attack submarines, amphibious ships, and nuclear weapons.

ADVERTISEMENT

The four defense committees on Capitol Hill must also come to an agreement over black and white provisions on nuclear issues and the border wall, the outcome of which could threaten the bills passing the House or ensure a presidential veto. Last year, Congress was able to achieve on time spending bills for the first time in many years. Defense hawks accepted a lower overall defense topline in exchange for a bill passed on time. For the Pentagon, time is often as important as money. Trying to do 12 months of work in a span of nine months is inefficient and can be wasteful. Predictability when awarding contracts is typically as important as how much money that Congress ultimately provides.

As former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court Former Mattis staffer: Trump 'shooting himself in the foot' on foreign policy MORE testified just over a year ago, the military has operated under 1,000 days of debilitating continuing resolutions for the past decade. This has harmed operational readiness and degraded the ability of the Pentagon to prepare for future threats. Congress needs to solidify the new norm of on time funding and let the political fight over the border wall get hashed out in a fight separate from that of doing their most basic task of keeping the government open.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow with the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former staff member in Congress and was a fellow with the Department of Defense.