Call it the age of the continuing resolution. Once again the federal government has started the fiscal year without new appropriations.
A continuing resolution signals that Congress has failed to appropriate resources in a timely fashion — something that’s especially detrimental to national defense. The Defense Department is shifting its priorities to compete against other great powers, and time is of the essence. The Pentagon cannot afford simply to repeat last year’s work.
For fiscal 2021, which started Oct. 1, both chambers of Congress failed our men and women in uniform. The Senate did not even draft a defense appropriations bill, completely punting on its responsibilities. The House did approve a bill, but it would severely handicap our national defense.
The House bill’s most glaring offense is a defense topline that falls $3.7 billion short of the level agreed upon in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 and adopted in other defense-budget legislation. For instance, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, approved by wide, bipartisan majorities in both chambers earlier this year, stuck to the deal with the defense budget at $740.5 billion.
In abandoning the agreed-upon funding level, the House Appropriations Committee wrote a bill that would slash myriad programs that are critical to ensuring deterrence in a world of great-power competition.
The cuts were especially acute in the nuclear modernization programs. U.S. nuclear delivery systems, already far past their intended lifetimes, are in dire need of replacement. Any delay in schedule could severely undermine U.S. nuclear deterrence — the backbone of our national security. Yet, House appropriators cut modernization programs in all three legs of the nuclear triad.
For example, they cut funding for the Long Range Standoff Weapon, the replacement for the old air-launched cruise missile, by more than one-third. Ellen Lord, chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council, told the Senate Armed Services Committee such a cut would be “catastrophic.”
Even the relatively minor (4%) cut approved by the House for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program to replace existing intercontinental-range missiles would prevent the Pentagon from meeting its needed time frame.
Additional cuts to the Trident II Life-Extension Program, the Columbia-class submarine, the B-52 bomber, and the W93 warhead program make the matter even worse. Cuts to key weapons systems could create dangerous gaps in U.S. deterrence against increasingly hostile adversaries.
To add insult to injury, the House chose to fatten up congressionally directed medical research. As the name implies, these are projects that Congress picks and chooses, mostly related to different types of cancer research. While some are worthwhile efforts, most of them are miles away from the Pentagon‘s core mission and competence, and would be better off left to other institutions.
Additionally, the House bill makes it tougher for the Pentagon to perform its job by severely reducing its transfer authority — the ability to move resources to different accounts to react to emergencies and changed circumstances. Partially in response to the use of defense funds at the Mexico border, the House appropriators cut the transfer authority to $1.9 billion from the $6 billion permitted in 2020 and the $9 billion requested by the department.
This reduction will necessarily make it harder for the department to manage its resources. It also represents a nadir for Executive-Legislative financial management — an issue that should not be partisan.
The continuing resolution will expire Dec. 11. At some point before then, appropriators of both chambers will have to come together and agree on how to properly fund defense.
Failing to prioritize our national defense over partisan politics will only aid and encourage our adversaries in their aggressive endeavors. The Pentagon cannot prepare for great power competition alone. It needs the active help of both chambers of Congress.
• Patty-Jane Geller is a policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Frederico Bartels is the think tank’s senior policy analyst for defense budgeting.
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