For the third time since September, Congress temporarily agreed to a stopgap funding measure to avoid a partial federal government shutdown at midnight Friday that would have impacted thousands of civilian workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
But the temporary spending measures have hamstrung the Defense Department through lost training of troops — impacting readiness for war — and cost more for renegotiated contracts, officials said.
The latest deadline gives Congress until Jan. 19 to reach a defense appropriations budget or face the prospect of a partial shutdown, which last occurred in 2013.
Congress has authorized a $700 billion defense bill, but has not yet passed legislation to fund it. The bill would lift spending reductions, called sequestration, imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
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Both the House and the Senate were able to send a bill late Thursday to President Donald Trump temporarily funding the government, but the Senate decided to kick an $81 billion bill to pay for disaster relief to next year. The House approved that relief earlier Thursday.
The overall spending bill included a $2.85 billion down payment aimed at keeping the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program running as well as reauthorizing federal surveillance powers.
The stopgap spending deals, known as continuing resolutions that cap spending at the prior fiscal year’s level, create unpredictability and uncertainty and waste money until a final defense budget is funded, analysts said.
“Continuing resolutions waste money because spending plans cannot be matched to needs in a timely fashion,” said Loren B. Thompson, a senior analyst with Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.
“It’s an abdication of congressional responsibility to provide the armed forces with adequate time to plan to spend its fund as smartly as possible,” Mark Thompson, a national security analyst with the Project On Government Oversight in Washington, D.C., said in an email. “Lord knows, the Pentagon needs all the help it can get in doing that, and Congress isn’t helping.”
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U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said the ongoing stopgap measures have a “devastating” effect on the military. Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, voted for the latest extension to avoid a shutdown, but hopes it will provide time to negotiate a two-year defense budget deal and set aside sequestration through 2020.
The Dayton congressman advocates moving the start of the budget year, which begins Oct. 1, to match the calendar year.
“Congress is always going to get its work done at the end of the year, which is always going to leave our military at a disadvantage,” he said in an interview. “…We can by law just change (the start of the fiscal year) and suddenly end this agonizing four- or five-month continuing resolution that affects the military more difficultly.”
CR as the norm
Since fiscal year 2010, continuing resolutions have lasted an average of 128 days, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Security. Of those, the longest was 217 days in the 2017 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, followed by 197 days in 2011 and 177 in 2013, the center reported.
The military has warned congressional leaders of consequences to training, readiness and modernization, particularly after 90 days or longer without a fully funded defense budget.
“Long-term CRs impact the readiness of our forces and their equipment at a time when security threats are extraordinarily high,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote in September to the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. “The longer the CR, the greater the consequences for our force.”
Among other impacts, the six-page letter cited lost or reduced training and canceled exercises; curbs on federal hiring and recruitment; impeding the Air Force’s ability to produce aviators; paying more money to rebid or renegotiate contracts; and hampering the “recovery of readiness” which “may prove fatal in a future conflict with major power adversaries.”
The lack of a defense budget and ongoing continuing resolutions have caused uncertainty at Wright-Patterson, Col. Bradley McDonald, installation commander, said in November.
“Every time we come to the latter part of one of these time lines, it causes part of our workforce to feel concerned, so we would hope to avoid that,” he said in an interview.
“This also hurts contractors who were planning on working on projects at Wright-Patterson,” said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs. “The continuing resolution creates a delay in maintenance and training and adds to administrative burdens.”
He added: “Congress’ failure in passing a spending bill has a cumulative effect on morale and creates a sense that it doesn’t give the Defense Department sufficient priority.”
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33 out of 42 years
The military has started the year under a continuing resolution 33 out of the past 42 years, a CSIS analysis found. CSIS also reported the Trump administration’s delivery of a proposed fiscal year 2018 budget on May 23 was the latest the White House has submitted one to Congress since the 1920s.
“Congress has not completed a federal budget in time for the start of the new fiscal years in the last 20 years,” Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said in an email. “The last time was 1997. The implication is that there is a structural deficit in the functioning of the government which needs to be fixed.”