Once the relevant congressional committees get their hands on the President’s Budget Request, the first announcement from the minority party is: “The President’s Defense Budget Request (PB) is DOA – dead on arrival.” It’s just something members of Congress say.
The accompanying graphic provides a timeline of congressional events leading to passage of the National Defense Authorization Act and the Defense Appropriations Act. Well, keep in mind the timeline shows what is supposed to happen.
On the first Monday of February each year, Congress receives the President’s Budget Request for the entire U.S. government. The Defense committees — the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), the Subcommittee on Defense (SAC-D) of the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC), the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and the House Subcommittee on Defense (HAC-D) of the House Committee on Appropriations (HAC) — get the Defense requirements and schedule Posture Hearings. These include reports from the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Service secretaries, the chiefs of staff of the Services, the Chief of Naval Operations, who all testify to justify the requests from each Service and the Department of Defense.
You might wonder why there are two committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives. For the Defense budget, money must be authorized and appropriated. No funds can be spent on any program without authorization. The SASC and HASC are authorizing committees, which work independently to determine the proper funding. They can only approve; it is the appropriations committees, the SAC and HAC, that have money, but they cannot write the check until the SASC and HASC give the nod.
The authorizing committees do their work first, so the appropriations committees can provide the funds. While committee staffs make assessments, the Services and DoD agencies can advocate for their programs and persuade the authorizers. For example, the Air Force wants to retire particular aircraft and use that money to invest in future capability. So the B-1 bomber, A-10 close air support fighter, and the Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long-endurance, intel-gathering, remotely piloted vehicle (drone), are on the block. Staffers perceive that the Air Force would sacrifice power that warfighters need now and want to keep. For almost two decades, the Air Force has tried to retire the A-10, but the Army loves the A-10 and is skeptical that the Air Force can replace its capability. Consequently, the Army, which benefits from the A-10 on the battlefield, wins, and Congress puts the A-10 back in the Air Force funding.
Both congressional subcommittees do “markups” of their funding recommendations, and those are negotiated before being put into the full committee budget document. The sides meet in conference to iron out differences. For example, one of the sticking points in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2020 was a disparity of opinion on what the new U.S. Space Force should look like and how much money should be approved. In the end, the SASC and HASC ironed out their differences and authorized the U.S. Space Command, a new military Service.
The same process takes place in the appropriations committees. Once there is agreement, the bills go to the Senate and House floors for open consideration, culminating in the National Defense Authorization Act and the Defense Appropriations Act being legislated by Sept. 30.
But herein lies the rub. Congress has provided American taxpayers a finished funding bill only four times between 1977 and 2017. In 40 years, Congress did its job in a timely fashion only one-tenth of the time. Now, imagine you are interviewing for a new position, and you tell your prospective employer, “I really, really want this job, but if I arrive at 9:00 a.m., I’ll have to leave promptly at 9:48 a.m.” Not terribly impressive. Or the flip side. Your prospective boss says, “Your salary will be $100 per week paid on the last day of the month, except when it’s not, which is 90% of the time.”
To compensate for missing deadlines, Congress passes a stop-gap measure called a Continuing Appropriation that funds the government until the comprehensive bill can be passed. During that period, no new programs can be started, and spending is capped at what was approved in the previous year. That’s what the Defense Department and the rest of government face every year. It makes planning difficult.
So, that’s the state of our congressional budgeting system. Somehow, the Defense Department makes it work, albeit inefficiently. Who knows? Maybe someday Congress will conclude there is a problem with its budgeting system. Um, nah.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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