ARLINGTON: The “disheartened” chairman of the House Armed Services Committee predicted this morning that Congress will once again miss its October 1st deadline to pass a federal budget, leaving the government on a stopgap Continuing Resolution “until at least December.” [UPDATE: Late Wednesday, President Trump blindsided GOP leaders by agreeing with Democrats on a CR through early December].
On the upside, Rep. Mac Thornberry told the DefenseNews conference here, there’s a good chance of getting additional funding in the CR for priorities such as missile defense against North Korea. The Texas Republican was also optimistic the final defense budget for 2018 – whenever it actually passes – will come in close to the $704 billion passed by the House.
Thornberry even sounded optimistic about the debt limit. Back in 2013, Tea Party resistance to raising the amount the government is allowed to borrow raised the specter of the US defaulting on its debts. The government is about to hit that limit again.
“Things are going to be a mess if we don’t raise the debt limit,” Thornberry admitted to reporters. “I think there’ll be an effort to try and resolve that this week.” [UPDATE: Wednesday’s deal between Trump and Congress included a three-month extension of the debt ceiling as well].
Won’t the debt limit debate be a golden opportunity for budget hawks to try to hold defense spending hostage again, I asked, something Thornberry has often lamented? Not so, he said.
Why? “The hurricane, the last hurricane, is causing a lot of pressure on the debt limit,” said Thornberry. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is already burning through its budget responding to Hurricane Harvey – which hammered Thornberry’s homestate – and now Hurricane Irma is bearing down on Florida. What’s more, said Thornberry, “FEMA is spending money at a much faster rate than they have in previous disasters, partly because people have (smart) phones and they can apply much more quickly.”
The government’s other unplanned expense is President Trump’s buildup of forces in Afghanistan. It’s expected to add about 4,000 troops. But no figure’s been announced. Perhaps that’s why the administration hasn’t said how much money, if any, it will ask for. If they have asked anyone, Thornberry said, “I haven’t heard it.”
Even once the administration figures out how many servicemembers to send, estimating the cost won’t be simple. The Obama administration’s caps on how many troops were officially in Afghanistan led to all sorts of gimmickry, Thornberry said, with some troops kept off the books: “We’re supposed to have 8,000, we really had 11,000,” he said. Another sleight of hand was for combat units to leave their maintainers and other support troops behind and hire contractors instead – at greater expense. If most of the 4,000 additional troops replace contractors, the cost of the Afghan war might actually come down.
What Thornberry does expect to see additional funding for this fall is missile defense. “I was very surprised when the Trump budget came over in may and actually cut missile defense… in spite of the rapid pace of tests (in) North Korea,” Thornberry told the DefenseNews conference. Since then, the North Korean threat has only grown, and voters are taking notice.
In his district over August recess, Thornberry said, “I had meetings with farmers to talk about the farm bill and realtors to talk about tax reform and Chambers of Commerce and all sorts of other people, but try as I may to talk about these other things, what people wanted to talk about was North Korea and the threat they pose and what we are going to do about it.”
So Thornberry is optimistic that Congress will add funding for missile defense. Normally, a Continuing Resolution would prevent that: A CR essentially orders federal agencies to keep spending at the levels in last year’s budget, with no leeway to end wasteful programs or to start new ones. But every CR allows some “anomalies” to increase or decrease spending in selected areas, and Thornberry thinks missile defense will be one of them.
That said, CRs are still wasteful and disruptive, Thornberry emphasized. CRs paralyze agencies for the first months of the fiscal year and force them to rush to spend their actual budget once it finally passes. That’s not the kind of stable funding the armed forces need to train their people and maintain their equipment, he said. We see the consequences in events like a Marine transport aircraft crashing, killing all aboard, or two Navy destroyers colliding with merchant ships in the Pacific. So far this year, he said, military deaths from accidents are running four times higher than deaths in combat.
[UPDATE: According to HASC staff, 42 troops have died in three months: seven on the USS Fitzgerald in June, 16 on a Marine KC-130 aircraft in July, and then in August, three on a Marine MV-22 Osprey, five on an Army Black Hawk helicopter, 10 on the USS McCain, and one in a Black Hawk off Yemen.]
The House has done its part, Thornberry said, passing a defense authorization bill and a defense appropriations bill that both weigh in at about $700 billion. This figure would exceed the Budget Control Act caps, except that the excess is labeled war spending – Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO – which Thornberry acknowledged is an imperfect expedient. He’s hopeful that “the Budget Control Act will be at least amended, if not repealed, as we move into the fall.” (The BCA caps are regularly tweaked upward in biannual budget deals).
The Senate authorization bill, shepherded by Thornberry’s counterpart John McCain, is within a few billion dollars of the House figure. “Unfortunately, I see no evidence that the Senate appropriations process is moving forward,” he said.
“So,” Thornberry said, “we’re going to do the same thing we’ve been doing , the same thing that got us into this mess, by passing a CR, I expect, until at least December.” (A man sitting near me groaned audibly at this date). I cannot hide the fact that I am disheartened.”
Between Afghanistan, North Korea, warship collisions, the debt limit, and back-to-back hurricanes, “there is a lot going on,” Thornberry told reporters. “But the world is not going to wait for us to catch our breath.”