Lawmakers face defense funding fight in the new year
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2017
WASHINGTON – The budget instabilities that plagued a challenged military in 2017 won’t end with New Year’s celebrations.
Instead, lawmakers have delayed a defense funding fight to January, after averting a government shutdown by passing a short-term budget deal just ahead of a Friday deadline.
The new, four-week funding measure approved Thursday evening has drawn the ire of several military veterans on Capitol Hill who voiced concerns ahead of the Christmas holiday. The new stopgap funding will run out Jan. 19.
“This sort of governing-by-crisis that harms our national security and hurts veterans has to stop. I didn’t spend 23 years in the military, going through multiple deployments, just to weaken our nation so that a bunch of politicians can go home early for the holidays,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both legs in the war in Iraq. “Our servicemembers in danger overseas today don’t get to go home for Christmas — they have to do their jobs protecting our nation.”
The military, along with the rest of the government, will operate off the temporary funding measure until Jan. 19 and then again face the risk a government shutdown. It’s become common practice for Congress to rely on the temporary spending measures, known as continuing resolutions, which are used until a full budget is approved.
The government is operating on its third continuing resolution for the 2018 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
In a decade plagued by such budget instabilities, the trend has brought bad news for the military, according to industry experts, Pentagon leaders and defense hawks on Capitol Hill.
“This defense budgetary instability is national self-harm on an epic scale,” Susanna Blume and Lauren Fish, defense analysts for Washington think tank Center for New American Security, wrote in a recent look at the flood of continuing resolutions in the last decade. “Congress’s inability to pass budgets, let alone on time, has severely handicapped the [Defense Department] in fulfilling its sacred mission – to ensure the safety of the nation and protect U.S. citizens and interests at home and abroad.”
And with a plenty of partisan turmoil on Capitol Hill, congressional members could have a tough time reaching a bipartisan funding deal come January. Though Republicans control the House and Senate, they will need Democrats to pass any sort of omnibus spending plan that includes military spending.
More so, Democratic leadership has warned there won’t be a spending plan until there’s a deal on the Child Health Insurance Program and immigration.
“It has to be a truly global deal,” Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned Wednesday. “We can’t leave any of those issues behind.”
Already, the 2018 defense policy plan, which surpassed President Donald Trump’s funding request, got off to a tough start earlier this year. Trump’s plan, which kicks off the overall budgeting process, was issued in late May, marking the latest a president’s budget has been submitted to Congress, according to Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Now, lawmakers must reach a deal to pay for the $700 billion plan. The National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved Dec. 12, busts budgetary caps and requires special legislative action to fund all its new priorities. Without it, the defense bill would trigger so-called sequestration, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.
In the meantime, as Friday’s continuing resolution directs funding to the military until Jan. 19, it also includes additional monies for more than $4 billion for missile defense efforts and nearly $674 million to address costly repairs to the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. Both Navy warships were involved in deadly crashes in the summer that left 17 sailors dead.
Some lawmakers, such as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., have blamed those deaths and others on the funding shortfalls. McCain has railed that as a result of Washington’s decisions, or lack thereof, “America’s military advantage is eroding.”
“As we wait another four weeks in hopes that congressional leaders negotiate a compromise, the military will work overtime to keep an already dire situation from getting worse. Readiness will continue to decline,” McCain said following the congressional approval of the temporary funding bill. “In a time when more servicemembers are dying in routine accidents than in combat, and our sailors are working 100-hour weeks, asking the military to wait another four weeks for adequate funding is unacceptable — and it is a dereliction of the first and foremost duty of Congress to provide for the common defense.”
Congress has been here before. A $1.1 trillion omnibus government spending plan that included the 2017 defense budget that began Oct. 1, 2016 wasn’t approved until May 2017.
The 2018 fiscal year defense plan includes a 2.4 percent pay raise for servicemembers, increases the size of the military, funds new ships and aircrafts and authorizes new spending on missile defense. The budget also includes necessary retention pay and bonuses. The bill is comprised of a base budget of more than $620 billion, with $66 billion in a warfighting account not subject to budget caps called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund and another $8 billion for other defense activities.
The defense budget also directs $26.2 billion for 14 new ships and $10.1 billion for the purchase of 90 Joint Strike Fighters. It directs another $5.9 billion for Virginia-class submarines, $5.6 billion for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, $4.4 billion for aircraft carriers, $3.1 billion for Army helicopters and $1.9 billion for procuring 24 F/A-18 Super Hornets.