Carter: Eighth consecutive year of continuing resolutions is ‘deplorable,’ creates strategic risk

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed deep displeasure with the congressional budgeting process Thursday, calling it “deplorable” that the government seems poised to begin a new fiscal year under a continuing resolution for the eighth year in a row and accusing lawmakers of sacrificing spending on future innovation in favor of weapons systems the Pentagon does not want.

Carter’s remarks came as Congress remained gridlocked on even the passage of a short-term resolution to pay for government operations through early December. On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)  introduced a proposal that would sustain governmentwide funding for most agencies at fiscal 2016 levels, while also adding money to fight transmission of the Zika virus and assist Louisiana flood victims, but Democrats indicated they would not vote for the measure before bipartisan negotiations.

Even assuming Congress reaches a stopgap agreement by next Friday and avoids a government shutdown (no one expects a budget for the full year), Carter said the ongoing pattern of continuing resolutions presented “grave concerns” for the Defense Department.

“The lack of stability represents one of the single biggest strategic risks to our enterprise at DoD,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It undercuts stable planning and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars, often in ways taxpayers can’t even see. It baffles our friends and emboldens our foes. It’s managerially and strategically unsound, and it’s unfairly dispiriting to our troops, to their families and our workforce. It’s inefficient for our defense industry partners too.”

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Most of the new procurements the Pentagon has planned for 2017 would be paused, since a continuing resolution would only permit spending on programs that existed in 2016, and only at the levels allowed in that year. Other Defense initiatives — including a quadrupling of the European Reassurance Initiative — would also be put on hold until a new appropriations bill is passed and signed.

The appropriations committees in the House and Senate have both approved Defense budget proposals, but Carter said he could not support them because they shunned what he viewed as vital aspects of the Pentagon’s 2017 budget proposal, themed on high-tech investments, including new funding for DoD’s “third offset” strategy to maintain technical superiority.

“The committees made cuts to critical Defense innovation spearheads that we need to maintain our military’s technological edge and counter some of the most vexing threats we face, taking away funding from our Strategic Capabilities Office, our partnership with In-Q-Tel, and our tech startup, the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx),” he said.

Carter said in large part, the congressional proposals diverted those funds to pay for weapons platforms that the Defense Department does not believe it needs, or are not high priorities at the moment.

“I’ve seen the constant temptation over the years to starve new and future-oriented defense investments in favor of more established and therefore well-entrenched programs. In a rapidly changing and competitive world, we must resist this temptation,” Carter said. “Rather than funding these investments in lethality and innovation that were among our highest priorities for sharpening our military edge and staying ahead of our adversaries, Congress wants instead to buy things like extra Littoral Combat Ships, which we didn’t request. These ships have important uses, but we already bought 26, with 14 more on the way, and we do not need more. We have much greater needs: we need the undersea drones, advanced munitions, electronic warfare capabilities, P-8s and innovation initiatives these measures would cut.”

Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee he was also concerned about budget uncertainty, echoing comments by each of the military service chiefs who testified last week that their services all faced challenges with modernizing their equipment and keeping their forces ready.

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“Each of the services has high risk, and they’ve articulated it,” Dunford said. “We, today, can defend the homeland. We today can meet our alliance responsibilities. And we today have a competitive advantage over any of our potential adversaries. But I fully associate myself with the chiefs when I talk about the time and the casualties that we would take as a result of readiness shortfalls that we have today.”

Republicans on the committee were quick to point out that a full-year Defense appropriations bill that they believe would address many of Dunford and Carter’s concerns has been awaiting a vote by the full Senate since May. Democrats have blocked its passage because it would break the last round of spending caps lawmakers agreed to in the Bipartisan Budget Act last December without giving similar relief to the rest of the government’s agencies.

“Both parties agreed with the funding on Defense, but then it came to the Senate floor and it’s been blocked multiple times because it’s being held hostage to other issues,” said Sen Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H). “What you’re asking for, it’s there, and it’s just disappointing to people like me because the priority of defending this nation and having the funding for our troops and what you need to do should be our priority no matter what.”

Carter declined to offer an opinion on whether domestic spending should be raised above the 2015 BBA caps, saying only that DoD submitted a budget proposal that would operate within the caps nearly eight months ago and that he can’t support a proposed plus-up in Defense spending under circumstances that are politically impossible to actually enact.

“We figured the agreement was the best the country could do on a bipartisan basis. That’s the only way we’ve had stability in the past. Now, I’m asked about this proposal and that proposal that would depart from that and my answer, in all seriousness, is that I have to look at what I think can be delivered on a stable basis,” he said. “That remains the foundation for our budget submission. We did a very good job in my judgment of finding a way to manage responsibly within the budget we submitted several months ago.”

“That was what the bipartisan budget agreement is and that is the — that has been the foundation and remains the foundation for our budget submission. We did a very good job in my judgment and this is the senior leadership of the department, to manage responsibly within that budget,” Carter said.