Time to Get Serious About Tough Problems

By Lawrence Farrell Jr.
With midterm election results having been digested and scrutinized endlessly, serious analysts are turning to a discussion of the many problems facing the country. The election didn’t really settle anything. It only teed up a new assembly of elected leaders who must confront the same issues that previous leaders faced. The issues are no easier to deal with. The American public and the newly elected officials hope that this time something can be done.

Of primary interest to the defense community is funding and support for the U.S. military.  The issue has increased urgency given our new commitments to the fight against radicalism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The problem is not only the increased funding being requested — $5.6 billion sought by the administration for action against the Islamic State — but also the lack of clear objectives for this new fight. There is also a need for them to be expressed in a resolution that the president will be presenting to Congress to authorize this fight, which is now estimated to take several years.

Another concern is extending legislative authorization for the $500 million program to train and equip Syrian moderate forces. This authorization runs out at the same time as the continuing resolution that funds the government which expires Dec. 11.

Our increasingly complex and intense military operations need political support, funding and national understanding, in addition to a clear definition of what is to be expected.

One wishes that an omnibus appropriation can be accomplished by the lame-duck Congress. Certainly something must be done before the government runs out of funding. Hopefully it will not be another continuing resolution extending out into the new Congress. There is so much to be done that pushing the budget debate into the next Congress will slow everything down. The reason for this concern is to be found in the severe problems with the fiscal year 2016 budget and the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. 

As defense officials have said repeatedly, the BCA caps will impose such stringent limits on spending that major force adjustments by the services can no longer be avoided. Army force structure would drop to 420,000, versus the glide path to 450,000 that leaders had envisioned. Such a small force, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, would be insufficient to execute the Army portion of the national military strategy. The Navy would not have funds to complete refueling of the USS George Washington and would drop to 10 carrier battle groups from 11 today. And the Ohio Class submarine replacement program, already facing insufficient funding, would be thrown into crisis. Although the Air Force has its top programs funded at this point, the effects on modernization and readiness would be severe.

What the Defense Department needs most is a return to regular order in budgeting and some relief from the BCA caps.

These problems are illustrative of the many challenges and uncertainties faced by the entire nation.  They are a consequence of our failure to come to grips with balancing our spending and our revenues. It is far beyond the scope of this column to fully vet this problem.

It has been reported that U.S. revenues have surpassed $3 trillion. That is an amazing number, but more amazing is the fact that it is still way short of what is needed to cover our spending. The interest on the national debt is now around $250 billion per year, but will surely rise as interest rates begin to tick up. This will happen faster than most predict, and interest on the debt will surpass annual defense appropriations sooner than we think.  Medicare and Medicaid combined already exceed defense spending.

The fact is at some point, the nation will need an open and relatively non-partisan discussion on what to do about all spending — discretionary and non-discretionary. That means dealing with entitlements and taxes. There will have to be adjustments and not everyone will be happy, but they must come at some point. So why not start now with agreements on small but important legislation that builds cooperation and confidence in the political process? Surely we can fix the process of authorizing and funding our military by returning to regular order, especially in these challenging security times. 

What about some needed legislative fixes to the patent process to further shore up the protection of intellectual property? What about serious discussion on immigration reform? If this goes off the track, it will poison all subsequent efforts to agree on other important issues. A quick deal to increase the debt limit is possible and will help to build momentum. There may be many other things that the parties can agree on, such as infrastructure projects and support of protocols for dealing with Ebola and other infectious diseases. The point is that we need to deal collaboratively on a range of issues.

In the end, though, we can’t avoid the challenging financial reality. The fact is that the nation is on an unsustainable trajectory. The reason that we continue to make short-term adjustments to funding for programs like defense and highway construction is that the money is simply not there in our presently constructed system. While we may be able to return to regular order in defense and even obtain some modest relief from BCA caps, the money to do that must either come from some other account or be borrowed.

There are some voices out there who have given us some blueprints to follow:  David Abshire in his book Call to Greatness, David Walker in Comeback America, and in the Simpson-Bowles plan to reform our taxes and entitlements that return us to a balanced, sustainable financial posture.

We need to trust each other more, to collaborate more and listen to thoughtful people. Congressional gridlock is killing the economy and crippling our military. It is time to get off the dime.

Topics: Defense Department

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