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The Pentagon’s ‘Lost Year;’ Time To Clear The Rubble

Posted by David Berteau on

David Berteau at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has penned a wise and pungent analysis of the fairly ridiculous defense budget unveiled today. He’s coined an excellent term to describe it — the Lost Year. Below you will find a somewhat shortened version of his piece, written with Ryan Crotty.

Let’s hope Congress and the White House remember their constitutional and moral duties to fund the government and to do it as well as our political system allows and fix this mess. Remember to write your congressman and to tell them what you think. The Editor.

2013 is a lost year for the defense budget. Political paralysis from the election, the fiscal cliff, sequestration and the debt ceiling doomed 2013 from the beginning. The FY2014 budget request is already under duress and is unlikely to fare better.

Despite the two month delay in its release, the new budget request fails to recognize the 2013 appropriations just passed and it exceeds the budget caps in the Budget Control Act. With an erroneous baseline and disregard for the BCA caps, the president’s request not only endangers the 2014 spending levels, but sets DoD on a path to plan for higher budgets over the entire Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), compromising the planning process.

Some hope might be found in the fact that both the House and Senate passed budget resolutions for the first time since 2009 (albeit under threat of having their pay withheld if they failed). But like the president’s request, both budget resolutions exceed the statutory budget caps and once again the government has put itself in the position of needing to resolve much larger issues in order to get defense authorization and appropriations for next year.

Congress needs to change the caps and then appropriate at one of the existing budget levels (House Budget Resolution, Senate Budget Resolution, or the president’s budget request) or they need to adopt a concurrent budget resolution at the cap level. If they cannot do one of these two things, there will be another CR, another sequester, and the vicious cycle will continue.

Can the government even make it to the end of the fiscal year? The debt ceiling, suspended in February, will be reinstated in May and the default deadline will likely be reached late summer, setting up another battle like the BCA two years ago. The threat of a U.S. credit default from a debt ceiling impasse could again destabilize financial markets and has the potential to cause serious damage to the uneven economic recovery.

The answers the government came up with last time were to use 10 years of cuts for one year of debt. That is not sustainable. The $1.5 trillion debt ceiling increase financed by the Budget Control Act ran out in December, before the required cuts ever even occurred. There clearly needs to be a new way forward that does not rely on orchestrated deadlines and new, manufactured processes, but instead draws from regular order and compromise.

The next five months are fraught with uncertainty and potential pitfalls, but will be crucial to charting a stable course forward for the Department of Defense. Years of unpredictable and unplanned budgets, multiple CRs, supplemental slush funds and undisciplined FYDPs have strained DoD’s planning process.

While FY2013 may be lost for the budget, and FY2014 is on the same path of uncertainty and upheaval, there are still key opportunities in the coming months to move away from the annual cycle of turbulence. Any steps toward finding a budget level to plan to, even if it’s not until the FY2015 budget or the FY2016 FYDP, provide DoD with a better strategic approach. Managing the drawdown in dollars and forces for DoD is already a formidable task, one that becomes exponentially more difficult without the ability to plan to a long-term funding level. But by clearing away the rubble of the many budget threats this year — from sequester to debt ceiling-and dealing with them in a sustainable way, DoD can regain a firmer foundation on which to build its future force.

David Berteau is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ryan Crotty is a fellow at CSIS.

What do you think?