How Congress Funds the Military Needs to Change

COMMENTARY Defense

How Congress Funds the Military Needs to Change

Mar 7th, 2018 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Frederico Bartels

Policy Analyst for defense budgeting

Frederico Bartels is a policy analyst for defense budgeting at The Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute.
U.S. Marines assigned to Class 3-18 of the Marine Aircraft Group 24 Corporals Course, prepare to fly from Ulupa'u Crater back to Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe Bay. DoD/Sipa USA/Newscom

Key Takeaways

Recognizing the declining level of our military readiness, Congress has wisely decided to boost the defense budget.

Once the department has it’s new, full-year budget in hand, it has only what remains of the fiscal year to adapt to its new spending level.

Congress can relieve the problem in the short term by giving the Pentagon limited carryover spending authority.

Suppose your aging car has become unreliable and hard to maintain. You’ve decided to buy a new one, and the bank has approved the loan. But there’s a catch: you can’t get the money until the bank decides what other loans it will make for the entire year.

While you’re waiting for the bank to hash out all those other requests, you’re stuck with driving that (increasingly) worn-out car.

Our military is in the same situation. And the bank with the dysfunctional rules is Congress.

Recognizing the declining level of our military readiness, Congress has wisely decided to boost the defense budget. But the military can’t get access to these extra resources until lawmakers pass a budget that funds the whole government. In the meantime, the Pentagon has to rely on continuing resolutions that provide only short-term, status quo funding, contributing to the deterioration of our military might.

Continuing resolutions serve to keep the government open while Congress struggles to reach an agreement on the budget for the current fiscal year. The number of days spent in a continuing resolution literally measures how long Congress has failed on its most basic task: allocating taxpayers’ dollars.

Because of their temporary character, these resolutions fund the government at the previous year’s spending levels and do not allow new programs or changes in the quantities of things to be purchased. These inherent limitations create three salient problems for the Pentagon: duplicative work, lost time, and a spend-in-haste environment.

All these factors contribute to the erosion of our military readiness.

The duplicative work arises primarily from the requirement that any contracts signed during that period match the length of the continuing resolution. Every time there is a new resolution, new contracting has to be done. Budgetary instructions also have to be done and redone with every new measure. All this time spent reinventing the contracting wheel is time stolen from future planning.

The lost time comes from the inability to schedule proper training, maintenance on our airplanes and ships, and the inability for people to join the ranks during the continuing resolution period. Training, maintenance, and system developments are all multistep activities, dependent on timing and events. Even if you add all the money in the world, you can only accelerate so much.

Furthermore, continuing resolutions freeze the Pentagon at last year’s spending level. Once the department has it’s new, full-year budget in hand, it has only what remains of the fiscal year to adapt to its new spending level.

At the end of the current continuing resolution, Pentagon workers will have little over six months to implement the increased levels of spending that Congress approves. This situation will encourage them to focus on acquiring things they can buy quickly, rather than on more important investments that may take longer to complete.

To break this wasteful and inefficient cycle, Congress has started discussing the possibility of letting the Pentagon spend some of its budget in the next fiscal year. This would relieve the department of some of the congressionally created financial pressure.

However, the real long-term solution for these process-induced financial binds plaguing the Pentagon is to reform how Congress decides the federal budget. After all, when you’ve had to start the year under a continuing resolution for eight years in a row, you definitely have a systemic problem on your hands.

The ongoing financial mismanagement by our nation’s lawmakers is costing us real military readiness. Congress can relieve the problem in the short term by giving the Pentagon limited carryover spending authority. The long-term fix will require reform of the entire budgetary process.

Will lawmakers take these remedial actions? Or will they just continue to treat the budget as little more than a political football? The latter course all but assures the continued deterioration of U.S. military might.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times