To be filed under the heading of things you won’t hear anyone in the Pentagon say: “Less is more.” Because when it comes to spending on Department of Defense priorities, more is always more but somehow never quite enough.
The recently enacted Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 established how badly lawmakers and the White House were going to bust the budget caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – $300 billion it turns out. Much of it went to the Pentagon, which sounds like too much.
The biggest slice of the Pentagon budget pie goes to operations and maintenance. If you cast your mind back to the president’s budget request for Pentagon operations and maintenance spending in fiscal year 2018, you find a total request of $223.5 billion. In the grand compromise passed a few weeks ago, this line item jumped to nearly $282 billion – a more than 25 percent increase. And, astonishingly, the secretary of the Army is now floating a trial balloon asking Congress for additional time to spend the Army’s portion of the operations and maintenance slice of the pie ($67.6 billion). Because Congress abdicated its responsibility to fund the government in a timely manner, Secretary Mark Esper is saying he might not have enough time to spend all the additional largesse. The original request for Army operations account for fiscal year 2018 was just over $49 billion.
Why would the Army secretary ask for extra time to spend just this particular money? Well, not all dollars are treated the same at the Pentagon. Because of the immediacy of spending on items in the operations and maintenance budget, Congress requires the Pentagon to spend all that money in the same fiscal year for which it was appropriated. On the other hand, the Pentagon has two years to spend research and development funds, three years to spend procurement dollars (except shipbuilding), and five years to spend the cash appropriated for military construction and shipbuilding.
So Esper would like to have more time to spend his additional approximately $18 billion. I agree that haste makes waste and more time may lead to more thoughtful decisions, but the real question is: Why didn’t the Pentagon have a plan for spending this additional money? The answer seems to be that Congress is shoveling money across the river to the Pentagon with no real plan on how to spend it. And that’s not a fiscally sound way to make spending decisions. The topline budget numbers set in the Bipartisan Budget Act were apparently based on politics and not based on need, priorities or the requests of the agencies receiving the funds.
But here’s the kicker. The budget deal didn’t write the dozen spending bills that fund the government. It just set top line funding levels. The country is operating under its fifth continuing resolution to keep government funded at fiscal year 2017 levels since the new fiscal year started on Oct. 1. The appropriations committees in the House and Senate are scrambling to write the bills before the March 23 expiration of the current extension. That also means that they can adjust the Army operations and maintenance funds to the amount they can reasonably spend in fiscal year 2018, because in a few short months, Congress will have to turn to fiscal year 2019, where the Army’s operational budget needs can be appropriately funded.
Congress has a few options of how to respond to Esper’s request. First, Congress could ask the secretary just how much the Army does need to spend on operations in the remainder of fiscal year 2018 and adjust appropriated funds downward based on that response. That would certainly be the most logical and fiscally responsible thing to do. Or Congress could grant his request to convert the funds into multi-year money.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect Congress to take the most logical and fiscally responsible route. If Esper receives a warm reception to this request, watch for the other service secretaries to make the same request. And one more element of fiscal discipline flies out the window.