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Congress Setting Defense Budget on Autopilot

Congress Setting Defense Budget

Congress is setting the defense budget on autopilot and high-tailing it out of town, leaving a lot of unfinished business behind. While President Obama is set to sign the defense policy bill for 2017 into law, this Congress left the funding bills in shambles for the next session to fix. As a stopgap, an extended continuing resolution (CR) essentially keeps defense spending on autopilot at last year’s levels, with no provision to start new programs, grow existing ones, or end bad ones. The CR will seriously hamper the military’s efforts to crawl out from under the Budget Control Act cuts, known as sequestration. We can do better to prepare for the rebuilding championed by President-elect Donald Trump.

Out of ostensible deference to the incoming Trump administration, Congress intends to wait until April to pass proper funding bills for the federal government, including defense spending. But the incoming administration’s intentions are not a mystery. President-elect Trump campaigned on rebuilding the armed forces, and there’s no need for Congress to wait for Trump to request the funding before getting started. Congress can lead the way on this military buildup early next year by passing

  1. a full 2017 defense appropriations bill early in the new year, and
  2. a subsequent supplemental spending bill to give the Pentagon long-needed budgetary relief.

Why does it matter if Congress passes a proper spending bill instead of a Continuing Resolution? Well, a CR merely funds all agencies and line items at the same level as the prior year, and it prevents new programs or production increases. That’s a major problem for the military, since so much changes from year to year. The current CR addressed a few major exceptions requested by the Department of Defense: the Navy’s new ballistic missile submarine program, Army helicopter multiyear funding, the Air Force KC-46A tanker program, and extra OCO funding for increased operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

But billions of dollars remain misaligned. Earlier, the Pentagon identified 78 new starts and 89 production increases in just the first half of the fiscal year, which, by the way, began two months ago on Oct. 1. For example, a CR would only fund a fourth of the Army’s expanded European Reassurance Initiative. Several more large programs will be hamstrung, such as the Marine Corps CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter, the Army-Marine Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, and the Air Force program to replace the Russian rocket engines that currently launch our satellites into space. These items are just the tip of the iceberg; there’s dozens more in each service that will go unaddressed until Congress passes a defense spending bill.

Two 2017 defense appropriations bill have already been written; the House passed its version, but the Senate’s was filibustered by Democrats indignant that defense was getting relief from sequester and domestic programs were not. The policy bill, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, has already passed both chambers. Most of the line items in these bills are untouched or only marginally changed from the Pentagon’s original request. Using that framework, Congress could very rapidly pass a full defense appropriations bill at the NDAA-recommended funding levels to give the Pentagon crucial stability.

But that’s just funding (more or less) President Obama’s request. To address well-known shortfalls across readiness and modernization accounts that Obama did not fix, and to prepare the way for a larger military buildup promised by Trump, will require a supplemental spending bill for fiscal 2017.

President-elect Trump’s proposed military buildup will cost tens of billions per year above Budget Control Act cap levels. The sooner the Pentagon receives that funding, the better. Already, House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Senate Armed Services Committee member Tom Cotton (R-AR) pledged to pursue a supplemental defense spending bill early in the new year. Vice President-elect Mike Pence echoed that call by asking for a defense supplemental within the first 100 days.

As with the full appropriations bill, a framework for a military supplemental already exists. There is precedent for this: In fiscal year 1981, appropriators gave the Department of Defense more money than outgoing President Carter had requested, priming the pump for President Reagan’s massive increases.

This year, Republicans on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees pushed for about $18 billion more in overall military spending spread among endstrength increases, readiness improvements, and select equipment that largely hewed to the service’s unfunded priorities. The Senate attempted to authorize this extra spending through a failed amendment. The House, by contrast, tried to achieve this extra expenditure by reallocating war funding (Overseas Contingency Operations funds, or OCO) to base-budget needs, which Democrats and GOP budget hawks saw as an irresponsible fiscal gimmick.

In the end, the pressure by both authorizing committees on Democrats, the White House and Pentagon leaders netted about $9 billion, or half their target. The final version of the NDAA approved by both chambers includes an extra $3.2 billion of committee-directed emergency money designated as base spending to fund endstrength increases and readiness improvements. The final policy bill also includes an extra $5.8 billion in extra pure emergency spending pursuant to a secondary OCO request filed late in 2016 by the Pentagon to pay for increased military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What does this mean for the 2017 defense supplemental? The services already have about $15 billion in identified and agreed-upon military spending priorities. The appropriations defense subcommittees also included billions more in their own priorities.

As we wrote back in February of 2016, the procurement account was likely to bear the brunt of inadequate funding in 2017 no matter the outcome of the defense bills. Nearly every procurement cut identified in our original analysis remained on the books, and many of the congressionally pursued increases to certain programs, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, extra Army helicopters, more Navy ships, did not materialize.

While a net loss for procurement this year was expected, the scale of the loss remains surprising. This is exactly where Congress should work with the incoming Trump administration to direct additional funds as part of an emergency supplemental in the first 100 days to begin to rebuild the military. Since Congress took care to designate this year’s extra funding toward bolstering readiness and active-duty end strength, modernization must now become a higher priority: It’s great to have more troops, training, fuel, & spare parts, but even the most ready personnel can only do so much with geriatric weapons.

If the Congress can provide exceptions to the continuing resolution and pass a double-digit increase in the defense budget early next year, 2017 will be remembered as the start of a much-needed military buildup.

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