This week, we can expect the usual "Will we avoid a government shutdown?" media stories, this time with a focus on the battle over funding the border wall. While avoiding a shutdown is an important and necessary objective, it should not be confused with an accomplishment anymore than failing to burn down your own house constitutes successful stewardship of your assets.
Absorbing as this fight over the wall and a shutdown may be, we should not lose sight of the larger picture. For too long we have been operating in an era of partisanship that weakens our institutions, including our military. Repeated funding fights and shutdown threats are symptoms of that disease.
Today, the Department of Defense is operating under the longest continuing resolution in its history. All other agencies funded by annual appropriations, except the Department of Veterans Affairs, are also under a CR. Fiscal 2017 represents the eighth consecutive year the DoD has spent at least the first quarter of the fiscal year under a CR. The four longest CRs in the history of the DoD have occurred in the past six years.
Every day under a CR, the DoD and other federal agencies are forced to spend taxpayer money inefficiently and less effectively. Such inefficient, short-term behavior is not merely a matter of prudence; it is a direct result of the legal restrictions imposed by a CR to do what you did last year and no more.
While the global security environment grows increasingly dynamic, our process for resourcing our national security grows ever more sclerotic. The idea that our national security programs, or indeed any federal programs, should be frozen in time while the world changes around us is absurd and should be unacceptable to our leaders as well as our citizens.
Even more troubling than the largely invisible waste of taxpayer money under repeated, lengthy CRs is that this pattern of repeated inaction on funding the government reflects a breakdown in the art of compromise and bipartisan governance that is necessary to sustain a successful national security and foreign policy across administrations. The partisanship of recent fights over health care and judicial nominations suggests our ability to govern may be weakening even further — a trend which may well encourage our adversaries but should be of deep concern to all of us here at home.
While a cruise missile strike can be ordered with or without the support of Congress, the kind of sustained military action that achieves difficult national security objectives still requires bipartisan funding and support. In the coming months, our troops may be sent into harm’s way to undertake new or expanded combat missions. Should this occur, we should start from a base of such bipartisan consensus, rather than to try to create it on the spot.
While the current process of funding overseas contingency operations has to some degree insulated our troops on the front lines from the most severe impact of our recent self-inflicted funding problems, the fact is that this pattern of funding cuts and repeated CRs that has developed in the era of the Budget Control Act has weakened our ability to build, train and equip the ready forces needed to maintain our edge and minimize the risk to our troops.
In my judgment, the state of our military, which remains far and away the finest in the world, has not reached a crisis stage yet. But having troops deployed in harm’s way, as we have since 9/11, has not been enough to prevent a pattern of self-induced fiscal paralysis that harms our military. We are on a dangerous path, and we should not have to wait for a crisis to address the underlying problems of governance here in Washington that threaten our ability to protect our interests and do right by the men and women we send into harm’s way on our behalf.
Last fall’s elections did not fundamentally alter the balance of power in Congress among deficit hawks, proponents of defense and domestic funding parity. The challenge of finding common ground on fiscal policy, and on governance more broadly, remains. If leaders in Washington prove unable to forge such consensus, the fiscal and political stability necessary to build and sustain a strong military and efficiently use the taxpayer’s money to that end will slip away. We can and must do better than that.
Michael McCord served as the most recent under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer at the U.S. Department of Defense. He currently serves as the director of civil-military programs at the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership. The views expressed in this article are his own.