General Mark Milley, the president’s nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Congress on Thursday to pass defense appropriations on time. The October 1 deadline for a new budget may seem far away, yet the summer recess means Congress only has a few weeks in session before then. Milley agreed with the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission that failing to act before then would be “reckless.”
When Congress fails to provide timely defense appropriations, it resorts to continuing resolutions (CRs), essentially copying and pasting the previous year’s defense budget, rather than revising it to address evolving and urgent needs. CRs create cascading problems for the Defense Department and American national security—stalling modernization, increasing costs, undermining readiness, and neglecting service members.
A CR ignores the Pentagon’s budget request for the new fiscal year and locks in place old funding levels disconnected from new realities. A CR also deprives the department of the authority it needs to start new and essential programs. Consider the Navy and Marine Corps, for example. Depending on the duration, a CR would create a cumulative shortfall of $20.4 billion. It would also delay eighteen planned research and development programs, including ones related to unmanned vessels and artificial intelligence. The CR would also block thirty-three construction projects and force the delay or cancellation of scheduled fourth-quarter maintenance for ten vessels.
CRs also waste taxpayer dollars due to supplier and contractor uncertainty. As General Milley noted, CRs represent an “inefficient use of the taxpayers’ dollars” and a “poor way to do business.” Senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry explained in May that stable funding “makes a tremendous difference. Everybody from the secretary to a plant manager of a subcontractor will tell you that having 12 months of funding that you knew was there enables them to be tremendously more efficient, get much more productivity and more value for the taxpayer dollars.” Until last year, Congress had failed to provide on-time annual defense funding for roughly a decade. Congress rightly demands that the Defense Department spend carefully and keep its programs on budget. If it falls back on another CR, however, Congress will own the blame for billions of dollars lost.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer has estimated that CRs cost the Navy $4 billion from 2011 to 2017. “We have put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid on it, and burned it,” he said. He noted that “Four billion is enough to buy a squadron of F-35s, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 3,000 Harpoon missiles.” The Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan noted the “powerful combined impact of predictable shipbuilding profiles and stable, on-time funding (absent a continuing resolution).” Without an on-time defense appropriation, those benefits dissipate.
A CR also hurts U.S. military readiness. In his testimony on Thursday, General Milley warned that CRs negatively impact training, manning, and equipping, the essential components of readiness. Since 9/11, the military’s rapid pace of operations, combined with arbitrary spending caps and the habitual Congressional reliance on CRs, have seriously undercut efforts to ensure that American troops can prevail in a conflict against a near-peer adversary. Increased defense spending in the last few years, as well as a timely defense appropriation last year, finally enabled the Pentagon to begin restoring military readiness. On-time defense appropriations must be the norm, not an anomaly.
In addition, CRs undermine efforts to recruit and retain the highest quality personnel. American military superiority depends on the competence and character of its service members, not just the capabilities of its weapons. General Milley explained Thursday that CRs send a terrible message not only to our adversaries and allies but to U.S. troops as well. The National Defense Strategy stresses that “[r]ecruiting, developing, and retaining a high-quality military and civilian workforce is essential for warfighting success.” Delaying a well-deserved 3.1% pay raise for service members is hardly an effective recruitment and retention strategy in an economy enjoying record-low unemployment.
For too long, members of both parties have allowed budget disagreements to prevent Congress from providing America’s service members the timely resources they to need protect themselves and complete their missions. Democrats have sometimes leveraged defense funding to gain more resources for domestic spending, and Republicans have too often ignored the fact that American national security requires the robust resourcing of departments and programs outside of the Defense Department. For the sake of American national security, this destructive perennial standoff must end. Americans should demand that their representatives in Congress establish a bipartisan national security commitment to provide our troops the timely, sufficient, and predictable resources they need to carry out the missions we give them.