On February 9, 2018, Congress passed the 5th continuing resolution (CR) to fund Federal government operations through March 23. Despite the necessity of this legislation, as good governance would dictate, Congressional support was not overwhelming, with just 59% of the Congress voting to keep the government functioning. Whatever the reasons that led to this near simple majority approval, the 6-week extension of government funding also importantly included a two-year reprieve from the spending caps previously set forth in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). The foresight of these caps adjustments not only nearly guarantees a final disposition on fiscal year (FY) 2018 funding, but also eases the annual, fractious discretionary funding debate that lies ahead for FY 2019.
In what is now politely termed the “Bipartisan Budget Deal of 2018”, BCA spending caps for FY 2018 were increased by $143 billon ($80 billion for defense, $63 billion for non-defense) and $153 billion in FY 2019 ($85 billion for defense, $68 billion for non-defense). This deal is good for both defense hawks and domestic advocates…and it’s about time. Paradoxically, though, it highlights what has become so regrettable with the Federal appropriations process. Unfortunately, few other levers besides appropriations exist within Congress that can force opposing sides of a debate to the discussion table.
For the 23 weeks leading up to the passage of CR #5, Congress engaged in polarizing, macro-level policy debates that should have been a second, simultaneous debate. Not THE debate. As, they had only a tangential connection with the most basic defense and domestic funding needs for FY 2018. So, finally, this deal does reflect their compromise. The additional funding should provide the fiscal headroom to avoid many of the budget maneuvers that have become a novel art among appropriators to stay within the parameters of the underlying budget resolution. With this budget agreement, Congressional and Executive Branch priorities are now able to be more fully addressed.
Challenges remain in the immediate-term for the Appropriations Committees, however. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. An omnibus funding package reflecting the newly elevated spending caps will clear Congress within the coming three weeks. House and Senate Appropriators must now quickly allocate the additional $143 billion across the designated budget functions. Seems like a good “problem” to have. However, congressional oversight of agency expenditures relies, in part, on the baseline of the Federal fiscal year, the necessary time-element upon which all budget authority is based. The goal of skillful budget execution, then, is to keep Federal program research, innovation, development, acquisition or implementation immune from these temporal constraints. Agency comptrollers have been challenged for these first 6 months of FY 2018, limping along under the “current rate”, funding levels and instructions prescribed by their respective FY 2017 appropriations measures. Now, they will be equally, yet differently, challenged to responsibly obligate all FY 2018 funding for the final 6 months of this year…and…in accordance with congressional intent.
It is thus incumbent upon Congress to appropriate these funds with terms and conditions that will enable agencies to successfully execute on their newly granted budget authority. Congress would be well served to remember that these elevated budget adjustments are indeed spending “ceilings” and not spending “floors”.
An infusion of $80 billion for defense programs, for example, with just 6 months left in the fiscal year will require these funds to be apportioned with surgical precision such that the programs will withstand future congressional scrutiny for any perceived “under-execution”. Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX), the distinguished (and first) Chairwoman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has acknowledged the pending challenges now facing the Appropriations Committees and the Defense Department. Referring specifically to the additional $80 billion, Chairwoman Granger recently told Defense News that “Congress must act to fix an ‘artificial deadline,’ or the military risks losing funds afforded by a new budget deal”, saying further that “we certainly don’t want to waste [it] and we don’t want to lose it.”  The Chairwoman’s desire to extend the obligation period for new FY 2018 funding very simply captures the essence of the challenge to “use it or lose it.”
Congress would, again, do well to take this under serious advisement. Doing so could normalize budget execution over the short-term and would provide for greater budget stability as Congress begins to deliberate the FY 2019 budget request. In hindsight, it now appears the recent legislative chaos could have been avoided. But, with defense and non-defense discretionary spending caps now set for FY 2019, let’s hope that the comity that [finally] prevailed in the Bipartisan Budget Deal leads to regular order with the upcoming budget and appropriations cycles.
- Goud, Joe. “Let Pentagon carry over FY18 budget boost so money isn’t wasted, key lawmaker says.” Defense News. February 22, 2018.