WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top budget official is preparing for the department to be operating under a continuing resolution for at least the short term, but it remains optimistic a government shutdown can be avoided.
Comptroller David Norquist told Defense News in an Aug. 23 interview that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Congress opts for a CR at the end of September, when the fiscal year ends.
“My preference would be there wasn’t a CR, but recognizing the timing of this year, you understand why a short CR of some limited duration” may occur, he added. “As a bridge to finalizing things, this is understandable.”
The timing of the government’s budget has been delayed all year. The Trump administration delivered its budget to Congress months later than normal order would entail, and Congress then spent most of the summer embroiled in the fight over health care reform before exiting for the August recess.
When lawmakers returns in September, they will have to work out not just the budget fight but the question of raising the debt ceiling, and deal with push from the White House for new infrastructure and tax legislation — all of which combines to leave the expectation for many that Congress will put together a short-term CR and kick the can down the road for weeks, if not months.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called the idea of a CR ”about as unwise as can be,” and pledged that he would be lobbying Capitol Hill to try and avoid such a situation.
If that does occur, Norquist — who is scheduled to appear at the Sept. 6 Defense News Conference — hopes that the CR stays on the shorter side, saying the situation under a CR “gets worse as each day goes on.”
Under a CR, “you have restrictions on the movements of money, you don’t have new starts, you don’t have quantity increases, so even while you’re waiting it’s not quite the same as being held harmless,” the comptroller said.
But certainly, in the minds of defense observers, a CR would be preferable to a government shutdown, something trade groups have begun to warn their companies to prepare for.
The last extended government shutdown occurred in October 2013, resulting in unpaid furloughs for civilian workers employed by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Service members’ duties continued uninterrupted, but some military pay and benefits were delayed during the 18-day shutdown. In addition, services like daycare and commissary operations on military installations were disrupted or cut back.
For his part, Norquist is hopeful Congress will be able to avoid such an action — although the Pentagon will be ready if a shutdown does occur.
“We always plan. For a CR, for shutdown, we have those plans. We don’t want to use them, but we have those plans, we keep them updated,” he said.
“The challenge of the risk of a shutdown is you don’t see it coming a mile away because no one asks for it, no one plans on it, no one seeks it out,” Norquist added. “It’s a side effect of a disagreement. So we always keep those ready, and if we get closer and we don’t see the CR moving smoothly, we have a series of steps we walk through if we need to.”
Leo Shane III with Military Times 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.