Defense officials find ways to operate within continuing resolutions — but that doesn't mean CRs are smooth sailing

Defense officials find ways to operate within continuing resolutions — but that doesn't mean CRs are smooth sailing
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More than 700 non-partisan and fact-based reports are issued each year at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO.) But in a Sept. 27 opinion piece, Elaine McCusker and Amy Coletta targeted and generally mischaracterized our recent report (GAO-21-541) on how the Department of Defense (DOD) operates during continuing resolutions (CR).

GAO undertook this review in response to the conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, which asked that we assess the effects of CRs on DOD — not the defense industrial base, as the authors suggest. Notably, that report also called for us to move beyond anecdotal evidence and testimonial statements and to focus, instead, on hard, quantifiable evidence. That is just what we did.  

Our first key point is that there are clear effects of CRs on DOD. We collected and analyzed each military service’s quarterly obligation data for fiscal years (FY) 2017 through 2020 for three appropriations accounts – Operation and Maintenance; Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E); and Procurement (other) – to assess the percentage of annual funds each military service obligated during CRs and after the enactment of regular appropriations. We saw an unmistakable difference in spending patterns during those fiscal years with CRs and the one recent fiscal year without (fiscal year 2019).

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For example, in FY18 (a CR year), the Navy obligated only 19 percent of its RDT&E appropriations during the first quarter of the year, compared to 46 percent of those appropriations during the first quarter of FY19 (a non-CR year). We also found that DOD’s civilian hiring slows during CRs — from about 250 civilian hires per day during non-CR periods to about 200 civilian hires per day when a CR was in place. This statistic and others that we cite are evidence of the constraints that CRs place on the Defense Department, something overlooked in their piece.

The authors correctly point out that we also determined that DOD has developed some practices to mitigate the effects of CRs. For instance, officials can request so-called anomalies to get permission from Congress to spend funds they would normally be restricted from spending during a CR. They can also initiate the start date for one-year service contracts to the second quarter of the fiscal year to avoid a break in service at the beginning of the next fiscal year.

But McCusker and Coletta suggest that because these practices are in place, we conclude that CRs are benign. On the contrary, our report provides a more complex discussion of these mitigation practices.

Take, for example, our discussion of major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) and the constraints posed by the No New Starts provision typically contained in CRs. We analyzed each of the 254 Selected Acquisition Reports the military services submitted to Congress for fiscal years 2017 through 2019. These reports provide key information on MDAPs and are a vehicle for DOD to communicate to Congress risks that these programs face.

Of the 254 reports, we identified seven that explicitly cited CRs as posing risks, such as delays and cost increases. When we met with officials, however, we learned that the CRs did not have their predicted effects on these seven programs. We further listed the ways in which DOD managed to avoid the potential problems and cited officials’ continued concerns.

For example, we reported that the Navy avoided a problem it faced with its Ship to Shore Connector, which was under production in FY19, but that did not have any planned production in FY20. This gap in production would have meant that any production in FY21 would constitute a “new start” and, therefore, be prohibited under a CR. In this case, Congress authorized the production of a single Ship to Shore Connector during FY20, preventing a production gap. Nonetheless, as we reported, officials also warned there were zero units planned for production in FY21, creating the same risk for FY22.

The key takeaway from our report, therefore, is not that CRs are inconsequential but, rather, that defense officials have found ways to prepare for and respond to the very real constraints they pose. In their piece, the authors note the creativity and dedication of DOD personnel in operating during CRs. While we take exception with many of their statements, on that we can agree.   

Elizabeth Field is director of defense capabilities & management at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.