The last time Congress completed work on a federal budget before the new fiscal year began, my beloved twins (Matthew and Ariel) hadn't been born. They're sophomores in college now.
That's right -- Congress hasn't approved a complete federal budget in time for the new fiscal year even once in the last 20 years. So at the moment the government is operating under what's called a "continuing resolution," meaning last year's funding levels and priorities have been carried over into the new year.
That wouldn't be a problem if this were the Ottoman Empire circa 1900, because nothing much changed from year to year back then anyway. In America, though, things are changing constantly. If the budget doesn't change with them, the backlog of unaddressed business begins to pile up. Road repairs. Medical research. Military training.
The way continuing resolutions work, federal agencies can't increase the funding of any program above the prior year's level. And if an agency was planning to begin a new program that wasn't funded in the previous year, it has to wait until the "CR" is replaced with a real budget funding the program.
The plan right now is to replace the current continuing resolution with a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year in late April -- by which time the year will be more than half over (it began October 1). But some observers think Congress will go the entire year without passing a real budget and just extend the CR, given the partisan turmoil on Capitol Hill.
That would have devastating consequences for the military, because it is already on the ragged edge in terms of readiness and gradually losing its warfighting advantages over potential adversaries. In fact, when you combine the fiscal uncertainties of doing a CR each year with budget caps that Congress legislated in 2011, the consequences could be literally fatal.
That's what the Army's vice-chief of staff, General Daniel Allyn, told Congress last week. He said the Army needs "sustained, long-term, and predictable funding," which is the opposite of what it has been getting from Capitol Hill. Budget caps force it to underfund training, maintenance and investment, while the continuing resolutions prevent it from using what money it has efficiently.
Take the Army's top aviation modernization priority, the program to develop an improved engine for its Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. Those helicopters have been gaining 70-100 pounds of weight per year since they debuted during the Cold War as more equipment was added, so now they are under-powered for operating in hot or high-altitude environments. The Army wants to field a more powerful engine as soon as possible.
But it can't because money it was counting on in the new fiscal year hasn't been appropriated. If the continuing resolution lasts for all of 2017, engineers working on the program will need to be reassigned, and a year's worth of development activity will be lost.
General Allyn, who testified with senior officers from the other services, put the slow and unpredictable pace of congressional funding in stark terms. He said if Congress doesn't fix the problem, the Army will be forced to reduce funding for readiness and contemplate "sending under-trained and poorly equipped soldiers into harm's way."
In other words, congressional dysfunction in the budgeting process is likely to get soldiers killed. General Allyn went on,
Our Army requires modernized equipment to win decisively, but today we are outranged, outgunned and outdated.... An unintended consequence of current fiscal constraints is that the Army can no longer afford the most modern equipment, and we risk falling behind near-peers in critical capabilities.
Like, for example, the Russians. The Army has repeatedly warned that it is undermanned and under-equipped in Europe, where the Russians increasingly outclass U.S. soldiers in long-range fires, armored vehicle protection, air defense and electronic warfare. But the Army can't move forward with initiatives like the new helicopter engine and a Long Range Precision Fires program to replace aging battlefield missiles until Congress gets its act together.
General Allyn said the most important thing Congress can do to help the Army is repeal the budget caps. But it also needs to rise above partisan squabbling to pass a real budget for fiscal 2017 and the years that follow. Otherwise, America's Army could be headed for major defeat, and massive casualties.