With the outlook for defense policy and spending bills opaque for the foreseeable future given the chaos in Congress, policymakers must prioritize steps to mitigate uncertainty as much as possible.
Hoping the political outlook will improve in the near-term and therefore not plan for scenarios very few want to see happen is not a sound strategy at the Defense Department.
Leaders from the Pentagon to the White House budget shop to congressional committee staffs need to prepare for a government shutdown later this year followed by a spending freeze known as a continuing resolution (CR) for an extended period of time.
If the patient must be triaged, however, leaders should be unafraid to acknowledge that an enacted defense appropriations bill now is the priority over the possibility of more funds later.
This may seem counterintuitive, but spending handcuffs (aka, continuing resolutions) cost far more due to:
-wasted staff time,
-delayed rotations, exercises, and change-of-station moves for the troops,
-inefficiency through delayed contract awards,
-incapacity to plan for longer than quarterly horizons including in industry,
-uncertainty for long-term investments like capital assets such as ships,
-inability to begin new equipment plans or expand existing weapons programs, and
-thousands of misaligned accounts putting money against the wrong projects.
The Department of Defense must remind everyone that it has not once in its history operated under a full-year continuing resolution. There is no institutional muscle memory or playbook to fall back on for current money handlers.
Having a spending bill signed into law would also make bearing with the potential sequester trigger of an automatic one percent cut early next year as part of the debt ceiling deal more manageable to absorb.
This is why plans should be made now for these possibilities—while not giving up on making the case for Congress to enact and the president to sign a full-year defense appropriations bill.
While not giving up hope for enacted appropriations, leaders must push harder than usual for more extensive approval of so-called “anomalies” under a CR. In the event of a continuing resolution, the Defense Department can submit anomaly requests that change the duration, amount, or purpose for which funds are used within certain appropriation accounts.
However, it is the prerogative of Congress to approve such anomalies. They rarely do so.
Research from the RAND Corporation in 2019 indicated that only 3 percent of the 388 potential anomaly requests prepared by Pentagon staff to potentially send to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and then Congress between FY 2013 and FY 2017 ever appeared in legislation.
A separate Government Accountability Office report tracked how many anomalies the Pentagon requested of the White House, compared to how many were enacted by Congress. In FY 2017—one of the longest stints the military operated under a CR in the past decade—347 anomalies were requested but just five were granted.
Executive branch officials should continue to educate members of Congress on the unique harm borne by currently-serving troops in the absence of enacted policy and spending bills. Not to be forgotten is the comprehensive defense policy bill called the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This important legislation has passed Congress for 62 consecutive years for good reason.
It is in the best interest of those in uniform to not break this streak—especially during a time of so many other headwinds, including an ongoing recruiting crisis and the stalemate over military promotions between the two branches regarding the Hyde amendment.
The defense authorization bill carries out unique duties that do not fall to appropriators, such as setting total active duty and reserve component sizes, approving military construction projects, blessing pay raises, changing legal authorities to prosecute sexual assault in the ranks, and new ideas like establishing pilot programs for buying cutting-edge technology for the military and reforming Pentagon business operations.
As just one example of the need for a policy bill, this year’s NDAA has essential foundational authorities and new programs that are key to keeping the AUKUS agreement on course. Pillars one and two will not stay on track or remain viable absent the foundational science and technology provisions within the draft legislation. Dozens of other examples like this are in both versions of the House and Senate NDAAs.
In the progression of bad to worse, government shutdowns do tremendous immediate damage that must be made up for later. Continuing resolutions that last for extended periods are extremely costly in ways far bigger than wasted money and also must be bought back at a higher price when appropriations do eventually arrive. But the lack of defense bills signed into law could be the most destructive with the longest recovery time especially with so little guidance for how to handle it for a year or more.
This is to say nothing of the increasing and varied security threats confronting the nation that must be deterred by decisive action and investment from our national security establishment. Ukraine aid is at risk amid all this polarization, which increases the chances that war with Russia spills into NATO territory and therefore puts American troops on the frontlines. Inaction on defense policy and investment also lets China continue to get ahead while Washington dithers. In the words of new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General CQ Brown, all a yearlong spending freeze does is “give our adversaries a year to move forward.”
Decision makers across Washington must prioritize mitigating risk and consequences in each of these successively worse fiscal scenarios—especially for members of the military and their families.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.