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Washington's New Normal: Quarterly Budget Cycles

Oct. 26, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Rep. Smith Interview
US lawmakers like Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, are coping with a confusing and uncertain budget environment these days. (James J. Lee/Staff)
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WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Corker had clearly reached his breaking point, his eyes red and his hair frazzled. The Tennessee Republican’s voice reached higher and higher octaves as he spoke.

“We’ll probably just kick the can down the road again — because that’s all we seem to do around here,” Corker told reporters, throwing up both hands in seeming surrender to Washington’s dysfunction.

That was early September, days after a group of Senate Republicans had broken off talks with top White House officials about the kind of big budget deal that would dramatically lessen or totally undo the remaining defense sequestration cuts.

Since, Washington’s political divisiveness shut down the government for two weeks, took the nation to the brink of a debt default and left federal entities with yet another paralyzing temporary spending measure.

Get used to it, say lawmakers and analysts, because every indication is: Governing and budgeting from crisis to crisis is the new normal in Washington.

Republicans and Democrats last week acknowledged that government should expect to be budgeted three months at a time. Both sides also expressed frustration — but neither side sees a way out.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, declared, “the federal government here in the US has been unable to function.”

More specifically, Smith zeroed in on Congress being “unable to pass budgets.”

“Let us get to a point where we can fund the federal government on a permanent basis,” Smith said, blasting conservative House Republicans — and some in the Senate — for “threatening a shutdown every four months.”

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, last week said in a television interview: “My frustration is, look, we kicked the can down the road for three months, [with] no real commitment to tackling the bigger issues.”

Rudy DeLeon, deputy defense secretary during the Clinton administration, says the Pentagon not too long ago had the luxury of producing five-year budget plans, known as the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP).

“We went from FYDPs to continuing resolutions,” DeLeon said. “CRs used to be six months in duration. But now they are three months in duration.”

Dov Zakheim, Pentagon comptroller under George W. Bush, called the budgets Congress has been passing mere “quarterly reports.”

That means “every four months you have no idea what the United States is going to do.”

When Zakheim travels the globe and talks to world leaders, they all ask him some form of a simple yet telling question: “Are you guys crazy?!”

Pentagon officials are again operating under a CR, which gives them new money but leaves them unable to start new weapon programs, award multiyear contracts or fire up new production lines.

Over the past several years, the Pentagon has been forced to operate under CRs. Even when the Pentagon got a full 2013 spending bill, freeing it of those restrictions, it came six months into the fiscal year.

That very scenario is playing out again. And, as DeLeon noted, there’s no reason to think when Congress again faces a government-shutdown deadline in mid-January that it will cover the rest of the fiscal year.

When asked in recent weeks if whatever government-spending measure that passes in January could include a full Pentagon appropriations bill, several senior lawmakers grimaced and described that as “a tough sell” and something they “really aren’t sure about.”

That’s largely because many tea party GOP members “see the defense budget as just another part of the federal budget,” said Eric Edelman, Pentagon policy chief under President George W. Bush.

Those lawmakers just want a smaller government that spends less, meaning, to them, defense spending is “tradable for other cuts,” Edelman said.

Talk Show Politics

Another reason three-month budgeting has become the norm in Washington, DeLeon said, is “the main dialogue in Washington has moved from committee rooms and caucus rooms to blogs and talk shows, where we focus more on our differences.”

Very short-term budgets is the best Congress likely will do until something breaks the political impasse over issues such as taxes, Obamacare, entitlement reform and defense spending. Another issue is the bad blood between House Republicans and Obama, whose second term won’t end until January 2017.

It remains unclear how tea party House members will be affected by the shutdown-debt ceiling flap when they face re-election.

After all, “the election is over a year away still,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News when asked if the midterms could improve the prospects for getting longer-term fiscal and budget bills passed.

“It will more depend on what we’re able to get done in the next few months,” McCain said.

And to avoid again kicking budgetary cans down the road by just a few months, “we need to figure out how we can work across the aisle more,” DeLeon said, noting Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush both worked with the other party to pass major fiscal legislation.

Congressional GOP defense hawks are frustrated that their House colleagues threatened the full faith and credit of the United States and, polls show, did significant political damage to the party’s brand.

“I’ve never seen such a big disconnect between what people thought they were fighting for, and what was actually on the table,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee.

Tea party House conservatives pushed — unsuccessfully — to defund or significantly change President Barack Obama’s healthcare law as part of legislation to fund the federal government and raise the nation’s borrowing limit. Defense hawks and old-school Republicans opposed that tactic, and some eventually voted with Democrats on the emergency fiscal legislation.

The resulting political brawl left little time to tackle big-picture issues and meant a temporary government-funding and debt-ceiling bill was the best lawmakers could do.

Smith took a shot at House tea party Republicans, saying they will do anything they can to “hurt the federal government.”

“I was talking to some people [from DoD] yesterday and I said, ‘How are things going?’ They said, ‘Well, the government is open, so...,’ ” Smith said. “That’s how low of a bar we’ve set — the federal government is open, so things are good.”

Hawks Swoop In

The hawks are quietly fighting back.

Forbes said pro-defense House members have been trying to explain to Republican leaders and rank-and-file members how important budget stability is to the military.

Not only have they been “making the case inside the caucus,” but they are planning to arrange meetings between “top generals and the top writers” on national security issues with individual House conservatives to “educate them.”

While the hawks work the inside the game, Zakheim and others are focused on the outside game — trying to convince American voters to avoid sending candidates to Washington who would cut a crucial defense program just to achieve an ideological goal shy of strategic thinking.

“Getting back [to bipartisanship] is not going to be easy. At the end of the day, getting back is the responsibility of the American voters,” Zakheim said. “Informed people have to put the word out that you just cannot mess with defense.

“This country’s prosperity ... depends on its national defense,” he said. “It’s up to our voters. If fed all kinds of pap that defense is just another trade-off with entitlements, we’re going to have a very serious problem because they are going to elect people who believe the same.”

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