Lawmakers, Pentagon Officials Warn of 'Corrosive' Effects of Continuing Resolution
As the Defense Department braces for its ninth continuing resolution over the past decade, lawmakers and officials are sounding familiar laments about a process they say damages the military, as the legislative maneuver limits long-term planning and new procurement.
But lawmakers say the military’s ongoing challenges have moved a lethargic Congress to quickly move through a series of appropriations, with a goal of passing a full budget bill by the end of the year — a likely extension of current funding levels notwithstanding.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Sept. 6 at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia that he anticipates Congress will pass a continuing resolution “at least until December” to fund the government beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“I cannot hide the fact that I am disheartened by this state of affairs,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I think a CR is a mistake, and I regret very much we are in a position where it seems … the best option.”
Two recent major accidents involving Navy ships, a fighter pilot shortage across the Air Force and an uptick in North Korean missile tests have “awakened the American people … that they don’t want to see this continue,” he said
Grover Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller and chief financial officer, did not mince words when describing the “corrosive” effects on the U.S. military after nearly 10 years of dealing with continuing resolutions.
“Under a CR, readiness and operational costs are unrecoverable,” he said at the conference. “The longer a CR lasts, the more damage” it does, he added.
Uncertain funding has caused the Defense Department to defer unit training, miss routine ship maintenance, delay personnel hiring and fund programs in increments, he noted.
“By deferring or scaling back training … units arrive at each subsequent level less prepared and unable to take full advantage of the more sophisticated training environment,” he said.
In 2017, more service members have died in training than have died in combat, Thornberry said. These tragic events reflect the “stresses and strains that have been put on the military because of high operational demands and … a world that is not slowing down,” he said.
Two recent collisions involving two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — the USS Fitzgerald in June and the USS John McCain in August — have been “warning lights that we were asking too much of our folks and of our equipment,” he said.
House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, noted that the Air Force’s current pilot shortage was a consequence of the uncertainty caused by operating under a continuing resolution.
Service leadership, including Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, have frequently noted the challenge of retaining enough fighter pilots. A lack of training aircraft is part of the problem, they have said.
The Air Force’s forthcoming end-to-end jet trainer program, known as T-X, could be delayed if funding remains at current spending levels into December, Wilson recently said in an interview with Defense News and Air Force Times. Service efforts to recruit cybersecurity personnel could also be affected, she said.
The F-35 joint strike fighter program should remain on schedule even with a continuing resolution through December, but could face issues if the mechanism remains in place through next spring, said Vice Adm. Mathias Winter, F-35 program executive officer.
“Based upon the current plan, we should see no major impact until the April timeframe,” Winter told reporters at the conference. The program office should know by January if an extended continuing resolution is likely, he noted. If so, it could slow down upcoming tests and development as the joint program office prepares for a follow-on software modernization program to begin in 2019, he said. The office can also submit an anomaly request to boost funding, above the fall 2017 allocation levels, he added.
Despite the budget limitations under a continuing resolution, there are opportunities to include extra spending for personnel, maintenance, training and missile defense as North Korea races to develop its nuclear missile program, Thornberry said.
“If you’re going to have this dreaded thing, how can you make it less bad?” he said. “Look at the events of the world. … We need more money in interceptors; we need more money in research.”
The Defense Department and lawmakers are making efforts to minimize the damage of a continuing resolution.
The Pentagon will soon begin an agency-wide financial statement audit, which provides “an opportunity for sustained reform,” Norquist said. The Defense Department is the only major federal agency not to have received a full-scope audit since Congress passed the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, he noted.
“What we learn from the audit process will allow us to make better decisions across the department and help us make better use of taxpayer’s money,” he said.
The House-passed version of the FY 2018 defense spending bill includes a $28.6 billion fund that could be used at the discretion of the secretary. Proposed by Granger, the National Defense Restoration Fund could be used to increase end strength, improve military readiness, modernize equipment and invest in future technology, she said June 29 in her opening statement for the House Appropriations Committee’s markup of the bill.
And lawmakers are moving quickly through appropriations hearings to work toward funding a full spending bill by the end of the year, Granger said at the conference.
“There’s just a different attitude right now of getting things done,” she said. “We have some things to prove to people.”
Thornberry said he sees hope for a path toward increased defense spending, “unfortunately some of that better path may have to wait until later in the year.”
Norquist said he was optimistic that “stable, robust funding is achievable.”
“I believe the stakes are high, the parameters are clear and our legislators — like the rest of us — have lived under the sword of sequestration for too long,” he said.