Preparing for the 2019 Budget When You Haven’t Passed a 2018 Budget

Government

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While Congress argues over the competing memos from members of the  House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the government is about to run out of money. Again. If Congress can’t pass another continuing resolution — or a full-year Defense Appropriations Act (as if that will happen this week) — we’ll have a repeat of January’s shutdown drama.

But incredibly, the normal process also continues, despite the current uncertainty, Monday was the original target date for release of the Trump administration’s first budget submission that is truly its own. Word in the Pentagon is now that the “budget will drop” next Monday, February 12. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis revealed that the DOD’s topline will be a sequestration-busting $716 billion.

This will make the annual trek to Capitol Hill to present the budget justifications a difficult exercise.

Pentagon brass will be in the uncomfortable position of requesting money for Fiscal Year 2019 when they still don’t have an appropriation for Fiscal Year 2018. It’s hard to compare your current request to last year’s figures when you don’t have last year’s figures yet. We are now in the second quarter of FY 18, and not only are we still operating under a continuing resolution, Congress has shown no progress in resolving what is sure to be a bitter fight over the sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act.

But the dysfunction is even worse this time around.

The House Budget Committee is responsible (along with its Senate counterpart) for drafting the annual budget resolution, which sets the overall amount that the government will spend and the amount that it will receive in taxes. The Appropriations subcommittee chairmen then use the budget resolutions figures to draft the bills that draw the money from the treasury for each department. Those would be the bills that haven’t seen the light of day in the Senate for the better part of the last decade.

Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) stepped down from her post as House Budget Chairman in December, since she is running for governor of Tennessee instead of seeking reelection to her House seat. The committee’s new chairman, Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack, told the GOP retreat last weekend that he’s considering not adopting a budget resolution this year in order to focus on reforming the entire budget process.

Not Creating a Budget Won’t Fix a Broken Budget Process

This wouldn’t be the first time Congress didn’t adopt a  budget resolution. The House and Senate never got around to resolving their differences over the FY 2018 budget resolution. The Senate has failed to act on the resolution more often than not for years. But the House has always gone through the motions of passing their version regardless of what might or might not happen in upper house. This sudden departure from that norm is unsettling.

Reforming the budget process is a noble goal, but one that the committee should tackle after fulfilling its core responsibility of passing the resolution so the appropriators can at least make the show of trying to do their jobs. As I and just about everyone else who pays a sliver of attention to these issues has said, the ongoing budget mess is killing military readiness across the board.

Weapon system upgrades get delayed. Field training exercises get curtailed. Repairs go unrepaired. A military running on cruise control isn’t generating readiness anymore than a marathoner running in place is covering the course.

Any Congressman who says he cares about readiness but contributes to the current impasse isn’t really all that concerned about readiness, I’m afraid.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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