By Buck McKeon
Congress is currently holding hearings on various department budget requests submitted by the President. As congressional committees consider how to spend federal dollars for Fiscal Year 2018 with the debt ceiling limit looming, it’s a good time to reflect on what the spending priorities are for the federal government.
When the Framers established the Constitution, they defined those spending priorities in Article One, Section Eight. Among the most paramount is our nation’s defense: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”
In an attempt to balance the budget, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). The act was intended to prevent the sovereign default that could have resulted from the 2011 United States debt-ceiling crisis. The BCA created a special joint select committee, known as the ‘Super Committee,’ to pass a deficit reduction bill. The goal was to cut $1.5 trillion over 10 years to avoid larger across-the-board cuts that would automatically kick in (sequestration). These austere spending caps were put in place to motivate Congress to act. However, the Super Committee failed and sequestration went into effect. Not a pretty moment for Congress.
Since enacted, BCA cuts have weakened our national defense. Where it hurts our military the most is what the brass call ‘Readiness and Reset.’ Readiness means being ready to fight around the clock. It requires qualified personnel, on-going training, refueling, ammunition, and maintenance. Defense Secretary Mattis said before a congressional hearing, “For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration.”
Today, the U.S. is dealing with more threats than ever before. These include Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the fight against ISIS and global terrorism.
The Pentagon is struggling with how to address these threats while their budgets continue to shrink. It means our military is being asked to do more with less.
Military service chiefs have pleaded with Congress to fill readiness gaps caused by repeated Continuing Resolutions and budget cuts. The Administration rightly requested a $30 billion supplemental for 2017 to address the problem. They only received $21 billion.
A recent report uncovered that 62% of the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet fighters are unfit to fly because of maintenance and repair issues. In the Marine Corps, an astounding 208 of 281 (74%) of aircraft were not ready for combat in December 2016.
All the services are facing similar problems.
The Army is short helicopters, missile systems, and necessitates 10,000 more active duty soldiers with another 7,000 for National Guard and Army Reserve requirements. “Readiness will remain the number one priority,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at an event.
The Air Force is facing a massive shortage of pilots and maintenance personnel. Air Force Secretary Wilson told reporters, “The first thing is readiness; we’ve got to restore the readiness of the force.” At the end of Fiscal Year 2016, active and reserve components were short 1,555 pilots, including 1,211 fighter pilots. The cost to train a fifth-generation fighter pilot is around $11 million. “A 1,200-fighter pilot shortage amounts to a $12 billion capital loss for the United States Air Force,” she said.
Both parties have blamed the other for the tough consequences of sequestration. However, the BCA passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan majorities. The time for blaming has passed. National security is an American issue. It shouldn’t be politicized nor should defense funding priorities be hostage to increased funding of non-defense programs.
It’s time for congressional leaders to separate partisanship from defense budgeting and approach the process in a more practical, predictable, and solutions-based manner. Stable and foreseeable budgets facilitate better planning and help to lower costs for expensive systems.
It’s time to repeal the BCA. Our military leaders and the great men and women who serve under them must be provided the resources they need – when they need it – to get the job done. We at least owe them that much.