The Pentagon’s Quantity Over Quality Problem

SpendingThe United States spent just about $610 billion on defense last year. That’s more than the next seven countries combined.

But it’s not new news that the U.S. spends more than any other country on defense. What is becoming more apparent, as we come to the end of the 2015 fiscal year, is the opaque and often inconsistent method by which Congress splices together the Pentagon budget.

With talk of a potential full year continuing resolution for FY 2016, sequestration looming, and flagrant misuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations account as a budget gimmick, it is clear that Congress is shaping the Pentagon Budget – funding for the most powerful military in the world – with an all-of-the-above, quantity over strategy, approach.

With only five weeks until the start of the new fiscal year, Congress has a lot to do to ensure our military is properly funded to avoid kicking off FY 2016 with yet another government shutdown.

Partisan polarization on Capitol Hill has created a fiscal environment in which federal agencies, including the Pentagon, are funded through temporary legal authorities. This approach lacks consistency, which is integral to planning a long-term military strategy.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 bridged this partisan divide to end the debt-ceiling crisis with a budget-controlling mechanism known as sequestration, a mandatory fixed-percentage cut from each federal agency that kicks in if and only if Congress does not budget to the caps set under the 2011 Budget Control Act. In 2013, the Bipartisan Budget Act, also known as the Murray-Ryan deal, postponed this cut by amending the caps, but expires at the end of September 2015.

This Congress hasn’t passed a single appropriations bill. And absent a stop-gap continuing resolution (legislation that extends funding for government agencies, typically at the previous year’s levels), or Congress miraculously passing new appropriations bills, the government will shut down in October 1.

Congress often passes continuing resolutions (CR) to avoid a government shutdown. In 2011, for instance, there were seven CRs. A CR that lasts several weeks is quite common, but lawmakers are entertaining the idea of a full year CR for FY 2016.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned that a prolonged CR would be “the absolute worst.” Funding the Pentagon at last year’s levels is problematic for the acquisitions process and long-term planning. But more than that, Pentagon-related spending accounts for 54% of all federal discretionary spending. Continuously funding the Pentagon at the previous year’s levels does not leave room for strategy-based defense policies.

The stunted appropriations process is not the only problem Congress will face when it resumes after Labor Day. The Iran deal will likely take center stage this September, not to mention the unresolved transportation bill – oh, and the debt limit we’ll hit later this fall; meaning the appropriations bills will likely take the back seat.

Congress is using volatile mechanisms to parse together a budget for, ostensibly, the most powerful military in the world. This irresponsible budgeting practice allows Congress, and the Pentagon, to avoid making accountable and strategic decisions about our national security priorities.

The United States has passed full appropriations bills for every branch of the government only four out of the last 40 years. But just because FY 2016 isn’t shaping up to be unprecedented, doesn’t mean it’s right.