In a marathon series of congressional hearings in the second week of June 2017, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis warned of looming threats to U.S. national security from terror groups, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and even climate change.
But his harshest warning concerned... Congress. Mattis blasted the legislative branch for failing to pass budgets on time and refusing to repeal the arbitrary budget caps that lawmakers passed into law in 2011 as part of the Budget Control Act, aka “sequestration.”
“In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role,” Mattis said at all three of his hearings, reading from a prepared statement. “It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk.”
“Despite the tremendous efforts of this committee,” Mattis added, separately addressing the House and Senate appropriations committees and the House armed services committee, “Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”
The Budget Control Act capped all federal discretionary spending—basically, all budget lines except health and retirement entitlements—through the 2021 fiscal year. The way the caps are calculated is complex. To put it simply, the government required itself to eliminate $2.4 trillion in planned spending over 10 years starting in 2011.
The caps have translated into lower budgets than the Defense Department deems necessary to pay troops, operate equipment and develop and buy new technology. Yes, the Pentagon still spends about $600 billion annually, not counting funding for frontline operations. But that number should be tens of billions higher, Mattis and other senior military officials have argued.
The shortfalls mean fewer flight hours for pilots, less training, less maintenance, and fewer new weapons. “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration,” Mattis said.
Congress can—and has in the past—written legislation lifting one-year spending caps. Mattis’ proposed $640 billion defense budget for 2018 is $52 billion over the sequestration limit. To pass that budget into law, Congress will need either to repeal sequestration—or pass a companion law granting the Pentagon yet another one-year partial exemption to the spending limit.
The partial exemption might be the best the Pentagon can hope for. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in May that lawmakers have “no plan” to end sequestration.
Only slightly less damaging, in Mattis’ estimation, has been Congress’ inability to pass budgets on time for the start of the new fiscal year every October, thereby compelling the Pentagon to operate on temporary extensions of the previous year’s budget, known as “continuing resolutions.” For nine years running, lawmakers have missed budgetary deadlines and fallen back at least briefly on continuing resolutions.
The resolutions allow Pentagon officials to spend money only on existing programs. In other words, as long as the Defense Department is running on a temporary budget extension, it cannot launch, say, development of a new fighter plane or stand up a new headquarters.
Mattis insisted he needs not only bigger budgets but predictable ones. “It will take a number of years of higher finding—delivered on time—to restore readiness,” he said.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Lawmakers at all of Mattis’ hearings expressed sympathy for the defense secretary’s pleas for fiscal help. “The committee needs to respond to this request in a responsible way,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). But lawmakers stopped short of promising an end to sequestration and continuing resolutions.
Mattis promised to do his part to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the existing defense budget, in part by eliminating redundant generals and admirals and their staffs, and streamlining new weapons programs.
But to find those savings, Mattis said he needs to fill a number of top Defense Department positions with officials who can help him identify waste. Mattis acknowledged that the Trump administration has put forward nominees for only 11 of roughly 50 top Pentagon positions—and that, Mattis said, worries him. “It gets pretty dire when you look what’s coming down the pike.”
Wrapping up his week of testimonies before—and harsh criticism of—Congress, Mattis bluntly stated what he, and by extension the whole military, needs from lawmakers. “I need BCA caps lifted and a budget.”