Rep. Wittman fears budget inaction would hurt Virginia shipyard
By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: April 5, 2017
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — If lawmakers whiff on a budget deal later this month, they could end up hitting defense contractors like Newport News Shipbuilding.
Congress must act by April 28 to avoid that from happening, warned Rep. Rob Wittman on Tuesday, addressing several hundred attendees at the Sea-Air-Space exposition in National Harbor, Md.
The Westmoreland Republican shared a stage with Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. They serve on the influential Armed Services sea power subcommittee, which Wittman chairs. Courtney serves as the top Democrat.
The federal government is currently operating under a continuing resolution that keeps spending at 2016 levels. That expires April 28. Congress must either enact a new spending bill or approve yet another continuing resolution. The latter option is a nonstarter for the military and the defense industry, Wittman said.
"We cannot have that happen, period," he told the audience.
Courtney agreed, saying: "If, God forbid, that a (continuing resolution) does pass, things are going to happen that are going to be splashy and ugly. People are going to get a pretty brutal awakening."
Courtney is close to shipbuilding as well. His district includes General Dynamics Electric Boat of Groton, Conn., which builds nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with the Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries.
The full House Armed Services Committee will convene Wednesday to hear from military leaders about the potential damage inflicted by yet another continuing resolution. Wittman said the shipbuilding industry is in the same boat.
The continuing resolution that's now in effect was passed back in December, freezing funding at 2016 levels. Congress approved it to give the incoming Trump administration some breathing room to develop a new spending plan.
Wittman and Courtney, among others, successfully pushed for an exception that included new money for the Columbia-class submarine program. Work on other shipbuilding programs hasn't been interrupted since then because those accounts contained sufficient money, even with funding frozen at 2016 levels.
That cushion no longer exists.
"The margin for error is all gone," Wittman said. "We used that in the first CR (continuing resolution). The flexibility we had in the shipbuilding accounts has been consumed, and the same on maintenance."
He noted that the Navy has postponed maintenance work, "and the same thing potentially happens on the construction side."
April 28 is closer than it might sound. Congress only has seven days left in its legislative calendar for the month. No action has been scheduled this week. Then lawmakers leave town for two weeks and come back at the end of the month with four days on the calendar.
The looming crisis comes as Newport News Shipbuilding is pushing to hire 3,000 new workers this year, increasing its workforce to 23,000. It is also making significant investments in its downtown shipyard.
With the Navy and Trump administration pushing to expand the Navy fleet in the coming years, Wittman said Congress must help the industrial base, if only by providing certainty when it comes to budgets.
"We must send a signal to industry that we are serious about this," he said.
Huntington Ingalls released a statement after the event. It characterized final passage and enactment of a 2017 spending bill as "critical to ensuring that programs can proceed as efficiently and effectively as possible."
The statement concluded: "We continue to work with Executive Branch agencies as well as the Congress to ensure that the impact of a long-term continuing resolution across defense and non-defense appropriations is well understood."