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Defense Hawks Fight DoD Budget Stopgaps As Shutdown Looms

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


UPDATED: Adds SecDef Spox Comment That CRs Are “Damaging” & Mattis Supports Spending Bill

CAPITOL HILL: To prevent a government shutdown Dec. 8th, Congress looks likely to pass a stopgap spending bill called a Continuing Resolution. But yet another CR, rather than a proper budget, would do unacceptable damage to the military, defense hawks say. So lawmakers in both chambers are digging in for a last-ditch stand, their desperation mounting with rumors that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis himself might be going wobbly.

Jim Mattis

UPDATED: Mattis’s chief spokesperson denied those rumors in an email. “Our position on the CR has not changed,” said Dana White, assistant to the secretary for public affairs. ‘CRs are damaging. At a time when the US and its allies are confronting a myriad of threats, the Department needs budgets that are higher and stable.”

“The men and women of our armed forces need Congress to pass an adequately resourced FY18 appropriations bill,” White said. “Continuing Resolutions are wasteful and inefficient; the longer they last, the more damage they do.”

At a hearing this morning, readiness subcommittee chairman Joe Wilson asked for ammunition against the CR from the two military witnesses, Marine Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault and Navy Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis. Wilson asked them to write up specific examples that he and his allies could use to convince “our constituents and even our colleagues” that another CR would paralyze much-needed improvements in maintenance, training, and modernization.

Rep. Joe Wilson

In essence, Wilson was asking for talking points: a “very brief one-page letter” from the Pentagon, he said, with “examples of increased cost, the delays that it’s caused, (and) there could be a paragraph as to the capabilities of adversaries,” all in “real-world language.” A CR continues spending at last year’s levels with no provision to start, stop, or alter programs, unless Congress grants an exception or “anomaly.”

Afterwards, Wilson told me that he and HASC chairman Mac Thornberry are gathering evidence of a CR’s damaging impact and that House Speaker Paul Ryan is taking the warnings to heart. “We’ve had an extraordinary meeting with the Speaker at his office last month,” Wilson told me, “and the good news is, I could tell that the Speaker, the terminology he (Ryan) was using was a restatement of the information provided to him by Secretary Mattis.”

But three junior Republicans railing against a CR sounded less confident, even a little panicked, about the prospect that Mattis might compromise. Their appeal to the military effectively asked the Pentagon to save Congress from itself.

Air National Guard photo

Rep. Austin Scott visits troops in Djibouti

Panic On The Hill

“As long as you ask for a Continuing Resolution, you’re going to get a Continuing Resolution. We can put an end to this madness by the end of this year, but only if men like you and Gen. Kelly (the White House chief of staff) and Gen. Mattis hold Congress’s feet to the fire,” said Rep. Austin Scott. “I just hope we can put an end to this madness by Dec. 31st. And it’s up to you. It’s up to y’all. Mattis can do it, Kelly can do it, they’ve got enough credibility here. ….Make us stop this.”

Office of Rep. Mike Gallagher

Rep. Mike Gallagher

“It might be seem absurd from your perspective for us to put the onus on you, given that we’re a separate branch of government which provides you with funding and it’s our job, but we really need your help,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher. “(But) Congress is rocking a 12 percent approval rating right now; you guys have 90 percent. So we’re going to need your partnership over the next month.”

“It is critical that we not hear mixed messages from the military community, whether that be at the SecDef level or from our generals or admirals,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, who served in Iraq with the National Guard. “CRs kill our readiness, I know that — I currently serve in our Guard and I can tell you, it kills our readiness… It’s not okay (to have) a CR, not a short one, not a long one.”

Some of the anxiety stemmed from reports that Sec. Mattis would soon call Hill leaders to say he’d support another Continuing Resolution to avoid a government shutdown. In fact, the call hasn’t happened and Mattis hasn’t said that. But the idea he might accept a CR to avoid a shutdown unnerved legislators who believe the exact opposite — that it’s worth risking a short-term shutdown in order to compel Congress to pass a proper spending bill instead of a CR.

Office of Rep. Trent Kelly

Rep. Trent Kelly with troops

Cancel Christmas?

If they don’t draw a line now, defense hawks worry, their colleagues will just keep kicking the can down the road and end up with a de facto year-long Continuing Resolution. A 12-month CR would erase the dramatic spending increases authorized but not funded in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. It would also prevent any contract defined as a “new start,” which means everything from launching an all-new weapons program to simply putting a Navy warship in drydock. Hence the dramatic rhetoric from the junior HASC members this morning.

Don’t let Congress go home until it’s passed a proper spending bill, said Rep. Scott: “Give us Christmas eve (off), give us Christmas day to go home to our families — there are a lot of men and women deployed around the world (and) Congress can cancel going home for Christmas just like the soldiers do.”

“If we have to cancel Christmas, it’s fine with me, I’m happy to stay here, and they should lock us on the House floor until we get this done,” agreed Rep. Gallagher, a freshman legislator and Marine Corps veteran of Iraq. “We have to make a stand over the next month…. I’m not going to support any effort that continues to punt this problem down the road any further. I just can’t look my buddies who are still on active duty in the eye.”

Will such urgent appeals to duty resonate with the rest of Congress? There’s a real problem of compassion fatigue. The government has survived some kind of short-term Continuing Resolution — albeit never a 12-month one — every year since 1998. It’s been operating under Budget Control Act caps since 2013. And despite dire warnings, the military hasn’t collapsed. It’s difficult to explain to legislators outside the defense committees that the damage is cumulative and accumulating.

That’s why Wilson wants those examples from the military. “We’ve just got to alert and educate our colleagues that we’re not just crying wolf,” he told me.

What do you think?