WASHINGTON ― Senate work on the annual defense authorization bill will be delayed until midsummer because of the ongoing wait for President Joe Biden’s federal budget outline, a delay that could complicate a host of military personnel policy and procurement plans.
On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said officials made the “difficult” decision to postpone the full committee markup of the massive authorization bill until at least July “because of the uncertainty of the timing of the president’s budget submission.”
The markup usually takes place in May. Military leadership — including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the military service chiefs — will testify on the defense budget needs for fiscal 2022 in June, three months later than their typical annual schedule.
“[The delay] leaves May for hearings specifically on [Defense Department] nominations,” Reed said. “We now have 23 nominations, including three military combat commanders and two nominees to the National Nuclear Security Administration. Getting these nominees confirmed as quickly as possible will require many hearings.”
Following the outgoing Trump administration’s uncooperativeness with the Biden team’s transition efforts, the new administration has had a slow start with the budget as well as defense nominees (before finally making major headway in recent days with nominees to the Pentagon and the Air Force).
Pentagon spending, policy and nominations will be jostling for attention in a busy Congress. Democrats, with control of Washington for the first time in years, have an ambitious agenda to pass big bills not normally seen in an administration’s first year, including bills aimed at pandemic relief, infrastructure investments, voting rights and competition with China.
The Senate’s delay comes a week after House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., warned that the White House’s sluggish release of its budget plans are endangering Congress’ ability to finish budget work before the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2021. That suggests Washington will have to deploy a stopgap continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.
“It has not been made clear to me that folks [in the White House] understand this: If we don’t get the budget by a certain time frame, we can’t mark up the appropriations bills and the defense bill,” Smith said during an American Enterprise Institute event. “If we slip past the middle of May, my staff tells me, we will not be able to do any of those things before August.”
The Biden administration is on track to be the second latest of any budget request. If the delay goes beyond May 23, it will be the new record holder, according to a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Data over the last three decades shows a ripple effect: When the budget has been more than a week late, defense appropriations have been an average of 110 days late.
“Submitting the budget request in a timely manner is important to good governance,” said CSIS Director of Defense Budget Analysis Todd Harrison. “It ensures there is sufficient time for oversight and careful consideration of major funding decisions, and it is essential to limiting the disruption and inefficiency caused by extended CRs.”
White House officials on April 9 unveiled plans for $715 billion in defense spending next fiscal year as part of a $1.5 trillion budget plan, but has yet to provide lawmakers with a detailed accounting of how the money will be spent.
That budget plan provides the backbone for the annual defense authorization bill, which includes legislative language for defense policy priorities, including items like expanding combat roles for women, Pentagon management reforms and family housing improvements.
The massive measure in recent years has also been home to a host of other measures, such as the annual military pay raise, recruiting and retention bonuses, equipment spending priorities, and long-term modernization plans.
In a typical year, when the president submits a full budget plan to Congress in February, work on the authorization act involves dozens of public hearings, hundreds of behind-the-scenes meetings, and at least six months of work between the House and Senate committees.
In the last 11 years, Congress has sent a final version of the measure to the White House for final signature before Oct. 1 only once. Seven times, it hasn’t gone to the White House until December, three months into the new fiscal year.
This year’s defense budget debates on Capitol Hill are expected to be particularly problematic. Conservatives have decried Biden’s plans for a flat or reduced defense budget as potentially dangerous for national security, while the curtailed military spending has been largely backed by progressive Democrats.
Both the House and Senate defense committees have held several budget-related hearings in recent weeks, but the service officials’ testimony on each of their service’s needs are considered critical for lawmakers in piecing together their legislative work.
With a continuing resolution already likely in a transition year, Reed is “spot on” to focus on confirmation hearings in May and have better informed budget hearings in June, according to Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director and the chairman of the board of the National Defense Industrial Association. Defense observers should be unfazed by this new turn, he said.
“I have total confidence in the bipartisan leadership of the defense committees in both houses in that they will get their work done and provide the authorizations and funding for a strong national defense as they have for the last 60 years,” Punaro said. “No question about that. No one should get concerned about the timing.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.