BUDGET MATTERS BUDGET
Congress Leaves Defense Department Hanging
During the spring and summer, there was a common refrain coming from the hawks on the Hill: the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal short-changed national security. The $773 billion request for the Defense Department — $813 billion total for national defense — simply would not cut it in the current environment.
“I am very concerned that this budget would result in real cuts in defense spending at exactly the wrong time,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during a May 3 hearing.
“In a fiscal environment with 8.5 percent inflation, the department’s budget request equates to a cut to our national defense at a time of unprecedented security risks,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., at the same hearing.
Similar concerns were raised in the House about the request, which was a 4 percent increase above enacted 2022 funding.
Both chambers walked their talk when drafting versions of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The House bill, passed in July, added $37 billion to the White House proposal, and the Senate Armed Services Committee mark added $45 billion.
In a statement about the SASC’s passage of the 2023 NDAA, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., stated that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and worldwide inflation required the committee to increase defense funding.
“This year’s markup advances U.S. military capabilities in response to China and Russia,” he said. “It targets research-and-development investments that will give our forces major advantages.”
Since then… crickets.
In September, the National Defense Industrial Association issued a white paper warning Congress that since 2021, inflation has eaten up $50 billion in Pentagon purchasing power. The lack of real growth in defense spending has also resulted in a $110 billion execution loss.
Yet, the full Senate did not vote on the draft NDAA before the end of the fiscal year, and Congress failed to pass any spending bills before Sept. 30.
Instead, Congress once again resorted to a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until Dec. 16.
That resolution meant that the Defense Department started fiscal year 2023 with the same funding as 2022, and no adjustment for the roughly 9 percent inflation since the beginning of fiscal year 2022.
The resolution expressly prohibits new starts, production increases or “the initiation, resumption, or continuation of any project, activity, operation, or organization … for which appropriations, funds, or other authority were not available during fiscal year 2022.”
One program caught up in this is the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, which is designed to take promising prototypes and run them through practical experimentation to validate and transition to production. The program received $35 million in initial funding in 2022, and the Pentagon was seeking $358 million for 2023, which is supposed to be the program’s first full year of operation.
National Defense asked the Pentagon how the reserve would move forward and for examples of programs and initiatives stalled by the continuing resolution. The response was a pithy but clear, diplomatic message to the Hill.
“Under a CR we cannot start new initiatives, including increased investments in cyber, nuclear modernization and missile defense, and we lose buying power,” said spokesperson Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman in an email. “Timely enactment of appropriations allows the department to spend taxpayers’ money in the most deliberate and efficient manner to implement the National Defense Strategy.”
So, for all the talk in Congress about the need for the Defense Department to procure more new platforms and speed up innovation and modernization to keep pace with China, Congress tied the department’s hands most likely until early next year when the next Congress can get around to passing 2023 funding bills.
Of course, this is nothing new. Only eight times since 1977 has Congress passed an NDAA prior to the beginning of the fiscal year. The average is 42 days after, according to the Congressional Research Service brief, “FY2023 NDAA: Status of Legislative Activity.”
The offices of the chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate majority leader did not respond to requests for explanations as to why the Senate, for all its bluster about the need to boost the defense budget, didn’t bother to pass an NDAA or funding bill before the start of the new fiscal year.
The one positive note in the continuing resolution was that Congress appropriated $12.3 billion in additional funding to support Ukraine.
According to a House summary of the resolution, that amount includes $3 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides training, equipment, weapons, stipends, sustainment and intelligence support for Ukrainian forces. There is $1.5 billion to replace equipment drawn from U.S. stocks to send to Ukraine, $540 million to ramp up production of critical munitions and an authorization for the president to draw down another $3.7 billion of U.S. defense articles to send to Ukraine.
It’s another example of how Congress can respond to a crisis, yet it can’t complete its annual business and provide the national security resources it says the country needs.