For an eighth straight year, a period spanning the wartime presidency of President Barack Obama, Congress will fail to pass a defense budget on time.
It’s a wasteful misstep caused again by bitter partisanship, weak leaders and alarming apathy over the harm being done to military readiness, say senators on the Armed Services Committee.
That harm is deep and widespread, uniformed leaders of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps told the committee recently in urging Congress both to avoid five more years of defense spending caps and to shelve its destabilizing habit of passing late-hour “continuing resolutions,” or CRs, instead of detailed and on-time defense budgets.
Accepting the inevitability of another CR this October, service chiefs still pleaded that it last weeks not months. The fear is that a lame duck Congress in November will decide that newly elected lawmakers should cut the next budget deal, delaying approval of a fiscal 2017 defense budget into next calendar year, thus aggravating fiscal uncertainties for a force under stress.
Defense dollars wasted by failure to pass budgets by Oct. 1, start of the fiscal year, are estimated to be enormous. Under a CR, spending is capped at previous year levels, which delays new construction projects and weapon buys, driving up contract costs across the department.
Political gridlock, therefore, is gobbling up chunks of real budget savings, including from spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and enforced through the mindless tool of sequestration. After a two-year hiatus, BCA caps are set to resume in fiscal 2018.
That threat and uncertainty created by another CR were dominant themes at a recent hearing. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., committee chairman, delivered a scathing indictment of the budget mess Congress has created for the military. Republicans, Democrats and the president should share the blame, he said, and have the “courage to put aside politics” in finding a solution.
Operating on stopgap deals such as “continuing resolutions, omnibus spending bills and episodic budget agreements, are a poor substitute for actually doing our job,” said McCain. “Is it any wonder why Americans say they are losing trust in government?”
Dysfunction in Washington, D.C., “has very real consequences for the thousands of Americans serving in uniform and sacrificing on our behalf. ... Are we serving them with a similar degree of courage? The answer, I say with profound sadness, is: We are not.”
McCain noted how five years ago, to address the nation’s ballooning debt, Congress opted to pass the BCA, which imposed arbitrary spending caps for a decade on discretionary spending including defense, rather than tackle the real issue, “the unsustainable growth of entitlement spending.”
Democrats argue the BCA resulted from the brinksmanship of Republican leaders who threatened to force a default on America’s debt rather than agree to a balanced budget deal that includes raising taxes on the wealthy or closing tax loopholes that benefit special interests.
With the current defense budget $150 billion less than in 2011, McCain said, the military is struggling “to sustain higher operational tempo with aging equipment and depleted readiness, and doing so at the expense of modernizing to deal with the threats of tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, forces are too small “to train for and meet our growing operational requirements against low-end threats” and still prepare “for full-spectrum warfare against high-end threats.”
BCA spending caps set to resume in the budget Congress will begin work on in February, McCain said, so “we are fooling ourselves, and deceiving the American people, about the true cost of fixing the problem.”
The current five-year defense budget plan already is $100 billion above BCA caps. In addition, $30 billion of annual spending for base defense requirements is buried in the OCO, or Overseas Contingency Operations account, a House gimmick adopted so as not exceed the spending caps.
“What this means is that, over the next five years, our nation must come up with $250 billion just to pay for our current defense strategy and our current programs of record,” McCain said.
“Put simply, we have no plan as of yet to pay for what our Department of Defense is doing right now, even as most of us agree that what we are doing at present is not sufficient for what we really need,” he warned.
The service chiefs said deployed units are fully ready to confront and defeat any adversary. But the tradeoff for keeping frontline units ready using constrained budgets, and after 15 years fighting against insurgent forces, is degraded longer term readiness to confront near-peer powers such as China, Russia or even Iran and North Korea.
The Army, said chief of staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, is “more capable, better trained, better equipped, better led and more lethal than any other ground force in the world today.” That said, he added, the Army chooses to “prioritize and fully fund readiness” versus needed end strength, modernization and infrastructure. “In other words we are mortgaging future readiness for current readiness,” Milley said.
Milley said he stood by an assessment given months ago that the Army would be at risk of taking unacceptably high casualties if it had to fight two near-simultaneous wars against nation state powers.
Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations, laid out a “triple whammy” of challenges Navy faces, the first being the high pace of operations for 15 years that has strained ships, aircraft and families.
No. 2 is budget uncertainty. “Eight years of continuing resolutions including a year of sequestration have driven additional costs and time into just about everything that we do,” Richardson said. “The services are essentially operating in three fiscal quarters per year now. Nobody schedules anything important in the first quarter. The disruption this uncertainty imposes translates directly into risk for our Navy and our nation.”
The third whammy, he said, are spending caps that lowered readiness rates of ships and aircraft that would be needed in a wartime surge.
Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller said Marines are meeting all current force requirements by “pushing risk and the long-term health of the force into the future.” He noted the Corps’ list of unfunded budget priorities totals $2.6 billion, “the largest we’ve ever submitted” to Congress.
“Repealing sequestration, returning to stable budgets without extended continuing resolutions and allowing us the flexibility to reduce excess infrastructure and make strategic trades are essential” to address long-term challenges, said Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff.
The four leaders agreed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that unless BCA is repealed or suspended, it could do more damage to force readiness than any adversary can, short of war. Graham, unlike most Republicans, will consider tax hikes to get a better budget deal.
Asked if he would too, McCain’s didn’t comment by our deadline.
“Do you want to do revenue to fix it? I’ll do revenue,” said Graham. “But what I’m not going to do is keep playing this silly (BCA) game.”
“If sequestration goes back into effect (after) 2017, are we putting people’s lives at risk” by squeezing available training dollars, Graham asked.
“Yes,” each service chief responded.
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