Congress must limit the impact of temporary budgets on America’s defenses

For the first time in several years, the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the subject of continuing resolutions and, more specifically, on the impact they have on the Department of Defense (DOD) budget. Continuing resolutions result from Congress’s inability to pass appropriations bills in a timely fashion — that is, before the onset of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. These resolutions enable the government to continue to function, since it cannot spend money that has not been appropriated. 

Continuing resolutions can extend a month, a quarter of the fiscal year, or even an entire fiscal year. There have been continuing resolutions in all but one of the past dozen years (the exception being fiscal year 2019), and most lasted several months. The fiscal year 2022 appropriations have yet to be legislated, and the government is functioning on the basis of a continuing resolution.

With few exceptions, formally termed “legislative anomaly proposals,” continuing resolutions prevent the government from ramping up programs from the levels of the previous fiscal year, and from undertaking any new starts. This has serious implications for the DOD. The Defense Subcommittee hearing, to be held on Jan. 12, will include testimony from top military officials and from Mike McCord, the Pentagon comptroller; all will likely complain that continuing resolutions make it exceedingly difficult for the DOD to conduct its business in an orderly fashion. Continuing resolutions force delays in planned training and exercises, prevent planned increases in procurement programs, and prohibit new program starts. The witnesses’ complaints will not be without merit.

The United States finds itself in an arms race with China that Beijing may well be winning. As an autocracy without the constraints of a legislature with any power, China can allocate resources at will for any undertaking that it prioritizes. For the past decade, the growth in China’s annual military expenditure — and more crucially, its military output — has outpaced that of the United States. After several years of double-digit growth, China’s defense budget is still growing in excess of 6.5 percent. annually; if Congress appropriates all of the $25 billion that the National Defense Authorization Act added to the Biden administration’s budget request, the budget will still have grown by less than 4 percent.

It is true that in nominal terms, the United States spends nearly three times what China does for its defense. But China’s official figures do not reflect all of its expenditures on defense. They do not include some space programs, nor the nominally civilian maritime fleet, nor many of their research efforts, since by law, if the Chinese private commercial sector develops any breakthroughs with military applications, these must be shared with the government. Moreover, whereas pay, benefits and other military personnel costs constitute about 23 percent of the American defense budget, military personnel costs are far lower in China, enabling Beijing to spend more of its funds on cutting-edge technologies and force expansion.

No doubt the witnesses at the upcoming hearing will stress that continuing resolutions undermine America’s ability to retain any degree of military advantage over China. Some likely will challenge their assertions, pointing to a recent Government Accountability Office report that downplayed the impact of continuing resolutions and asserted that the DOD constantly develops work-arounds to cope with them. Nevertheless, that report did not address the impact of delays in new starts, nor did it calculate the deleterious effects that delays in planned exercises and training have on personnel readiness. And although the report stressed that the DOD could benefit from legislative anomaly proposals, its own tables reveal that in fiscal years 2017 to 2020 (with the exception of 2019 when there was no continuing resolution) Congress never approved more than just 2 percent of the DOD requests for such exceptions.

Clearly there are ways to remedy what is an increasingly untenable situation for the Department of Defense. For example, Congress could mandate that, at a minimum, the DOD would receive approval for one-fourth of all its anomaly proposals. Alternatively, Congress could exempt the DOD entirely from the continuing resolution process by approving the defense budget separately, even if the rest of the federal budget remains constricted by a continuing resolution. 

It is all well and good for Congress to fund a Pacific Deterrence Initiative, for example, but continuing resolutions undermine the pace and progress of this and related efforts to maintain America’s military and technological lead over an increasingly aggressive China. Hopefully, the House appropriators, and their Senate counterparts, will take heed of the pleas that they will hear on Jan. 12 and act with haste to rectify the damage that continuing resolutions annually inflict on the nation’s defenses.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Appropriations bill Continuing resolution Defense spending Department of Defense federal budget request

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