BUDGET MATTERS BUDGET
Congress Continues to Kick Appropriations Can
As the saying goes, the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, another certainty is Oct. 1. The day occurs the same time every year, predictably after Sept. 30 and before Oct. 2.
Despite this temporal reality, Congress consistently fails to complete one of its most important duties: pass the 12 annual appropriations bills before the beginning of each fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Yet again, the federal government will ring in the fiscal new year under a continuing resolution — the device Congress uses to paper over its persistent failure to appropriate. And it likely means starting 2023 with 2022 funding levels — no inflation adjustment and no money for new programs, or “new starts.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, Congress has issued continuing resolutions in 43 of the last 46 fiscal years. During that time, there have been 21 funding lapses and 10 shutdowns implemented. To call that dismal performance would imply there has been performance.
The GAO’s June 2022 report, “Selected Agencies and Programs Used Strategies to Manage Constraints of Continuing Resolutions,” noted that federal agencies have developed coping mechanisms after years of practice with continuing resolutions.
However, the report states that these funding mechanisms cause a range of harm: delaying hiring new staff, freezing the issuance of new contracts and grants, forcing rapid execution of funding after long continuing resolutions and making agencies waste time figuring out how to prepare for and operate during them rather than carrying out their regular missions.
And while Congress dithers on appropriations, adversaries continue funding and building their military capabilities.
Both the House and the Senate acknowledged the pacing threat from China when they authorized a big boost in defense spending for 2023. The House passed its version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act in July and increased the Biden administration’s defense funding request by $37 billion. The Senate version added $45 billion.
Participants in a legislative and budget discussion at the Ground Vehicle Systems Engineering and Technology Symposium in August said that Congress might pass the final 2023 NDAA during its lame duck session. However, it will probably be at least February 2023 before the new Congress passes a defense appropriations bill, they said at the event organized by the Michigan chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association.
Modernization programs are likely to be some of the most affected by a continuing resolution. The Army Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft — the new scout helicopter program — is particularly vulnerable, said Thomas Stapleton, president and founder of Stapleton and Associates.
“I think there’s a lot of headwinds against it, not a lot of support,” he said. “Support in industry is definitely waning, and the Army is re-baselining the program. … I think it is in a lot of trouble.”
In the case of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center, or GVSC, delayed appropriations and continuing resolutions cause a host of problems.
For example, the center only received some 2022 funds in August that were authorized in December 2021 and finally appropriated in March 2022, according to David Gorsich, chief scientist for Army ground vehicle systems.
“So, almost a whole fiscal year is over. We’re just receiving the money,” he said on the sidelines of the symposium. “I was supposed to spend that money this year.”
GVSC partners with universities on research and prototyping projects for Army vehicle technology. When money is delayed, the government employees working with the academic partners have to stop what they are doing.
“You have an ongoing program. I can’t go back and pay those employees to work on it through the whole fiscal year until July, August time frame,” he said. “I get the money, and I can pay them now. But they couldn’t work on it. They had to take a break.”
Similarly, lapses in funding affect his academic partners.
“How do you bring in a bunch of Ph.D. students working on your project, and then the next year you don’t have any money for them?” he said. “They’re still going to continue their Ph.D. program, so now the universities have to try to figure out how to pay those students.”
Continuing resolutions can result in programs ending up an entire year behind, he said.
“So, if Congress or the Army says, ‘Hey, what did you do with all that money?’ I’d be like, ‘Well, we just got it just now, so we didn’t do anything new over the whole year,’” he added.
Who will be the first ones to complain about program delays and likely cost overruns? The 535 elected officials in Washington who consistently fail to do their job of funding the government.
“We made it just almost business as usual. We just do a CR every year,” said Stapleton. “That’s a paradigm I think we need to change.”
He urged the largely industry audience to turn up the heat on Congress and make members understand the difficulties continuing resolutions cause the defense sector.
“I would put a lot of pressure on my elected officials of both parties to do their job,” he said. “They took 43 days off this summer knowing full well we’re going to be under CR. So, a pox on all their houses in that regard.”