Continuing Resolutions Bind the Pentagon

By Jon Harper
If lawmakers continue funding the government through continuing resolutions, it would be difficult for the Defense Department to recover, according to a leading independent budget analyst.

“I don’t anticipate this [recently passed] CR alone would be very disruptive,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “Program managers are already prepared for this. Now if this continuing resolution gets extended, then you start to have problems for programs because there is less and less of the year left for them to recover and actually execute what they had planned in 2016.”

Continuing resolutions are problematic for the Defense Department because they prohibit new programs from starting and don’t allow for an increase in production rates for ongoing programs. The current one would keep the government funded through Dec. 11.

“If they extend this much longer … then you have to start looking at Congress giving DoD exceptions” to these restrictions, as well as permission to move money around between accounts, Harrison said.

If a full-year continuing resolution is passed, it’s “almost certain” that Congress would give the Defense Department the exceptions it requested for high priority acquisition programs. However, if another short-term CR gets approved before the December deadline, “it’s iffy” as to whether lawmakers would grant the requests at that time, he said.

Congress could “stumble along from short-term CR to short-term CR all the way through the year and maybe not pass the exceptions until late in the [fiscal] year,” he said.

Receiving special program allowances would not fully solve the Pentagon’s budget problems because they wouldn’t increase the military’s topline. Officials have been sounding the alarm. “A long-term continuing resolution is merely sequester-level funding under another name,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at a recent aerospace conference. “The longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year.”

Harrison noted that exceptions would require tradeoffs. Once “you’ve gotten the exception … you have to cut another account,” he said. “You have to find an offset.”

Training, day-to-day operations and lower priority acquisition programs could take a hit, he said.

Analysts said Speaker of the House John Boehner’s resignation could make it more difficult to reach a deal before the December deadline, as a new Republican leader takes the helm.

“The new speaker may feel like he needs to take a hard line” in negotiations, wrote Molly Reynolds, a governance scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “The path to a resolution [now] has many more moving parts.”

Harrison said the fate of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act — which the White House threatened to veto over a dispute with Republicans over overseas contingency operations funding — is tied to the broader budget impasse.

The NDAA — which authorized about $585 billion in Defense Department spending — is a policy bill that doesn’t actually appropriate money for the military, he noted. “This [veto threat] is more symbolic of the budget showdown that we’re going to have later this year over the total level of defense spending and what accounts that money goes into and whether or not we raise the [federal] budget caps.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement

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