Just How Low Can the Bar Go?

COMMENTARY Defense

Just How Low Can the Bar Go?

Nov 27th, 2019 2 min read

Commentary By

Thomas Spoehr

Director, Center for National Defense

Frederico Bartels

Policy Analyst for Defense Budgeting

Congress needs to quit dancing around its budgeting responsibilities. Antenna/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Failure to deliver timely budgets has become the norm in Washington—even for critical functions such as national defense.

The problem largely lies with the hyperpartisan House bill.

It’s high time for lawmakers to get serious about doing their duty to the American people.

Congress is proving to be a legislative limbo champion.

In a limbo competition, contestants try to pass under an ever-lowering bar without either falling or dislodging it. Last Thursday night, lawmakers just barely avoided a government shutdown—about the lowest possible measure of legislative “success.”

Now, the question is, how much lower can they go? Will they wind up going budget-less for a full year, funding government with nothing but a series of continuing resolutions? Will they fail to deliver even a defense authorization bill?

Unfortunately, failure to deliver timely budgets has become the norm in Washington—even for critical functions such as national defense. From fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2018, the Department of Defense operated, on average, for more than four months of every year under nothing more than a continuing resolution. Congress finally got its act together and passed FY 2019 defense authorization and appropriations bills in timely fashion.

Now, however, Congress has lapsed back into its dysfunctional, foot-dragging ways. House and Senate defense-authorization bills have languished in conference committee since July, with no apparent progress made on forging a consensus bill.

The problem largely lies with the hyperpartisan House bill. For the first time in history, House leaders decided it would do nothing to court Republican votes. Instead, they opted to winning the support of Democratic doves by loading up the bill with progressive catnip such as new climate-change mandates, reports on military justice, and the repeal of the administration’s new evidence-based transgender policy.

The Senate bill, on the other hand, courted—and won—strong bipartisan support, with only six senators voting against it.

Negotiations over defense appropriations have been stuck on neutral, too, although the issues holding up the defense budget have little to do with defense itself. There is no real argument about our troop numbers, ships, or even how many jet fighters to buy. Even the disagreements on the creation of the Space Force are minor and around the edges.

According to recent press reports, what’s holding up the process are the impeachment proceedings in the House and disagreements on how to fund security improvements along the U.S.-Mexico border.

So, instead of getting a defense budget, America’s fighting men and women must make do with a continuing resolution that funds the Defense Department and the rest of the federal government—at last year’s levels—until Dec. 20.

Talk about low-level performance? Even the most junior congressional staffer knows Continuing Resolutions undercut military readiness.

Typically, they do not allow new programs to start, meaning that new procurements or research scheduled to start in the new fiscal year must be delayed. That throws a monkey wrench in the Pentagon’s plans to overhaul its programs to address major power competition with systems like hypersonics and directed energy. Each service has new programs they need to start to be prepared to meet future threats. The funding freeze hobbles that effort.

Continuing resolutions also lead to a tremendous amount of inefficiency and waste. Exactly how much, even the Pentagon doesn’t know. Suffice to say, it’s a lot.

During a continuing resolution, the Defense Department spends at a much lower rate, handing out funds incrementally and artificially shortening contracts. Typically, it postpones major decisions until a full-year appropriation is passed.

Contracting offices become ghost towns during continuing resolutions, only to become madhouses once the funding bill is passed. All this contributes to a massive loss of Pentagon buying power, something Congress ostensibly claims to be interested in.

It’s high time for lawmakers to get serious about doing their duty to the American people. And the foremost of those duties is to “provide for the common defense.” Congress needs to quit dancing around its budgeting responsibilities. The bar is getting lower as days click by.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times