Challenges, Opportunities Ahead for Defense
by Maj Gen Arnold L. Punaro, USMC (Ret)
In my September column, I made a case for why Congress needs to get past all of the issues cluttering its table and finish the work on the annual budget for fiscal year 2016.
Many of you were kind enough to send me letters with favorable comments regarding my views on this topic — along with a couple of critical thoughts, which I also appreciated and learned from. Regrettably, it does not seem that any of our efforts or pleas have been persuasive with the Congress itself.
Recently, a survey by The Washington Post of a group of highly respected and bipartisan budget experts placed the likelihood of getting all appropriations bills passed by Oct. 1 as low, and the possibility of a government shutdown as high — and probably increasing. Peter Orzag, President Obama’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, and currently a vice chairman at Citigroup, placed the odds of a federal shutdown at “over 50 percent” and growing.
Steve Bell, the senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and a former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, was even more pessimistic, putting the odds at 60 percent. And Stan Collender, executive vice president of Qorvis Communications, a federal budget expert having experience with both the House and Senate Budget Committees, feels the odds are nearing 70 percent.
Each of these experts points to an extraordinarily large number of divisive issues that remain unresolved and stand as major obstacles to progress toward finalizing appropriations bills. These include the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, a charged issue that finds opponents and proponents on both sides of the aisle; the funding of the Highway Trust Fund, which must be resolved before the end of October or some important highway projects will have to be terminated; and a partisan squabble over funding for Planned Parenthood.
And looming in the background is the Iranian nuclear agreement. As Collender has written: “When combined with the expected efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, [the Iran deal] will add significant highly emotional fuel to the partisan fire and make a government shutdown far more politically palatable.”
None of this is encouraging for securing approval of a defense appropriations bill by the beginning of fiscal 2016, and the likelihood grows that defense might be handicapped by another government shutdown, or sidetracked for weeks — if not months — as programs stumble along under yet another continuing resolution.
Perhaps most distressing is the problem of topline funding, since it is still unclear the degree to which sequestration will reduce the defense funding level requested by the president in February. As with many other problems associated with budgeting, there is significant disagreement over whether and how to use the overseas contingency operations account to increase defense spending above the Budget Control Act caps.
For numerous reasons, this is simply not an appropriate way to deal with and manage items of great importance to the public interest.
First, all of the issues clouding the budget radar screen are worthy of public debate and discussion. Those having passionate perspectives should certainly express them, and no one who believes in the democratic process should discourage public officials from expressing their views. But, there are numerous, appropriate ways to articulate these positions, particularly during the era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle with its accompanying plethora of television and radio outlets. In the view of many, tactics that delay and distort the overall budget process are not among these “numerous appropriate” ways.
Second, the funding items at issue mentioned above, on an annualized basis, amount to less than 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget. So the question is this: Does it make sense to hold up 99 percent of the budget because of a handful of items that Congress disagrees about, when a widely supported expense such as defense goes unfunded? Certainly no business, or even a household, would operate in such a manner.
Because of the need for steady funding to maintain readiness of the force, to recruit and train new entrants to our armed forces, and to develop and field the equipment that provides our men and women a clear edge on the battlefield, we need to move away from this annual budget brinksmanship.
Those in the Defense Department charged with keeping our forces ready and equipped to respond to unexpected crises, need predictability in their budgets and funding plans.
There is an old saying among military men that “the enemy gets a vote.” That means however hard one tries to develop accurate and actionable intelligence about him, you never know with certainty what the enemy plans to do or can do.
But we ought to know with certainty what we plan to do and can do. Having such certainty is an advantage we owe ourselves, but without a more stable budget process that is an advantage we will inevitably lose.