WASHINGTON – A visibly frustrated Gen. Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for Congress to pass a budget before the end of the month, even if it is simply a return to what the Pentagon asked for at the start of fiscal year 2017.
Selva made his concerns about the budget situation clear in both tone and words, telling an audience hosted by the Air Force Association that unless Congress can come together and make decisions, "we will no longer have the authority to spend money to defend the nation."
"There's a little part of me that says 'I don't even care what size it is. Just give us a budget,'" Selva continued. "I do actually care what the amount is, but if you're going to play politics with the administration's request for additional funds, give us the budget you said you were going to nearly a year ago, when we started the debate over the '17 budget. Just give us a budget.
"If it has to be subject to the Budget Control Act because that's the law of the land, then make it so and get it the hell over with," he added.
The government has been operating under a continuing resolution, which locks funding levels in at the previous year's numbers, since the fiscal year began in October. This marks the first time in U.S. history a new administration has taken power under a CR. The current CR expires April 28, which means lawmakers must finalize a budget by then, extend the CR for longer, or trigger a partial government shutdown.
In recent weeks, there has been a growing sense that an extended CR is the likely maneuver, at least for a short period of time – but military leadership has been vocal that extending the measure through the end of the fiscal year would be disastrous for Pentagon readiness.
On Thursday, Selva also raised concerns that short-term impacts of the budget crunch will have long-term effects on major programs. As an example, he held up the idea of a new aircraft carrier, predicting that in a few years he will be on the Hill being forced to testify about why such a program is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
"And you’ll look at me quizzically when I say the first reason that’s true is because we had to lay off all the people who know how to build aircraft carriers for four months because we didn’t have the money to continue procurement to build the damn aircraft carrier," Selva said. "Or something like that. And you’ll say that can’t possibly be true. But it is, because it is the law."
Selva was careful to separate between the authorizing committees, who he described as "quite magnanimous," and the appropriations committees that are not funding those requests. And indeed, the Pentagon has received strong vocal support from top authorizers such as Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and his counterpart in the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry of Texas.
As recently as last week McCain, in frustration, cut off a reporter who asked him about the effects of a full-year CR, repeating several times: "We are not going to do a CR!"
However, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wa., the ranking member on the HASC, sounded pessimistic last week when asked about the possibility of getting a budget deal done before the end of the month.
Selva made it clear that in his mind, partisanship, both on the Hill and in broader American society, is creating a smokescreen that misses the danger of not having a full budget for the Pentagon.
"it doesn’t matter who you voted for. … We have the Congress we elected," Selva said. "If mom-and-pop public don’t get a little bit excited about the fact we still don’t have a budget, we might have an esoteric argument about whose political position is a little more right than somebody else’s political position that is a little more left, [but] then we’re missing the point."
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.