Over the last several weeks, there has been growing concern on Capitol Hill that Congress might not pass a budget for the 2020 fiscal year that began October 1. When these situations arise, as they almost always do at the beginning of a fiscal year, government shutdown is averted by passing a Continuing Resolution (CR) that maintains prior-year spending levels into the new year.
The assumption typically is that Congress will eventually pass a real budget. This year, though, doubts are rising that a budget can be passed, given wrangling over funding for the president’s border wall and the very divisive impeachment process. At first observers were predicting a budget would pass by Thanksgiving. Then it was by Christmas. Now they are saying January-February of next year.
But it might not happen at all. The Pentagon and a slew of other agencies could be facing the prospect of a full-year CR that keeps funding levels for individual accounts in a fiscal straitjacket. If that actually occurs, it will have a devastating impact on Pentagon programs. A planned 14% increase in weapons accounts wouldn’t happen, blocking the purchase of needed munitions and new weapons to replace Cold War systems. Maintenance of the old weapons would also be impeded.
Longtime defense observer Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners estimated in a November 1 note that the likelihood of a full-year CR had risen to 35%. He figures that if Congress gets to the second half of the 2020 fiscal year in April without passing a real budget, it will probably just keep funding levels at the 2019 level, effectively flattening the Trump Administration’s military buildup.
Ranking Republican members of the Budget, Armed Services and Appropriations committees issued a factsheet this week warning of the damage such a move might entail. Obviously, they wouldn’t have done this unless the prospect of a full-year CR was becoming real.
The Trump defense buildup that began in 2018 focuses on developing and procuring a new generation of weapons, and fiscal 2020 was supposed to be the year in which spending on these “investment” accounts would rise fastest. So if spending actually remains flat at the level of the prior year, the impact on military plans will be significant.
The Army figures a full-year Continuing Resolution would prohibit 29 new procurement programs from starting, slow production on 37 ongoing programs that include vital munitions, and preclude new research on 31 programs such as hypersonic missiles and cyber defenses. The reason is that CRs restrict spending at the individual account level, so unless Congress makes exceptions (which it almost never does), nothing can increase—even if there is money unneeded and available in other accounts.
The overall readiness of the entire force would decline in such a scenario. The Air Force would not be able to address a shortage of 2,000 pilots, the Navy would have to forego maintenance on 14 warships, and the stockpiles of smart bombs for dealing with military emergencies would not be filled at the needed rate. Experts say the negative effects of foregoing planned spending increases for a year would ripple across the force for several years. Shortfalls in training and maintenance caused by prolonged CRs could increase the risk of death or injury to warfighters.
The most distressing feature of this prospect is that if we get a full-year CR, it wouldn’t be about partisan differences over military needs. The parties have long since agreed on military spending levels for the new fiscal year. The differences are over other matters like the border wall. As analyst Callan puts it, “defense is thus once again caught in a broader non-defense spending dispute and will be used as a cudgel to extract budget/policy concessions.”
When you see a spectacle like this unfolding, it inevitably raises questions about the long-term durability of our political system. Billions of dollars are wasted each year by the inability of Congress to pass a budget on time, and now we face the possibility of lives being wasted too. It makes no sense to put the entire budget on hold over relatively trivial matters like a border wall. The political parties need to get their act together and pass a budget, lest they call down a pox upon both of their houses.