WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon stares down yet another continuing resolution, the building’s top budget official is warning that repeated uses of the budget procedure is “corrosive” to the military and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.
David Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller and chief financial officer, told an audience at the 2017 Defense News Conference that CRs have “administrative costs that are wasteful and readiness and operational costs that are unrecoverable.”
Norquist, in his first public speech since taking office, lamented how continuing resolutions have become “the new normal, and therefore, somehow acceptable,” adding that there have been 30 different CRs over the past 10 years, lasting for over 1,000 days in total.
“Just another sign of fall — the kids go back to school; football season begins; and the government starts operating under a CR,” he said. “Regarding numerous and lengthy CRs as simply part of the normal cycle does a huge disservice to the American people and our service members.”
Norquist’s comments came hours after House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told the Defense News Conference that he expects a three-month long CR. Under a continuing resolution, budget levels are capped at the previous year’s funding stream and new projects are blocked.
Part of the challenge of discussing CRs is the phrasing, Norquist said. For instance, officials will talk about “deferred training,” which sounds somewhat innocuous. But the comptroller put it in other, simpler terms.
“If you are a parent, imagine your college student ‘deferring’ attending calculus classes for a few months,” he said. “How prepared will they be for the final exam? Like going to class and studying, training time that is deferred is not recoverable. It is time lost and money wasted.”
“Hiring delays,” he said, result in vital, skilled talent heading elsewhere for jobs. “Incremental funding” means firms drive up costs because they lose quantity. “Maintenance delays” on ships translates to “rescheduling of other ships’ maintenance, creating ripples of disruption that can linger long after CRs end.”
In early August, 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. But in an Aug. 24 exclusive interview with Defense News, Norquist said his office was preparing to work under a short-term CR, even as he hoped to avoid one.
The CR is not the only budget challenge for the department, the comptroller warned. The budget caps remain a guillotine over the military’s neck, threatening to cut off funding at any moment.
“The [Budget Control Act] caps were never intended to be a solution; they were intended to be a problem,” Norquist said. “We cannot properly provide for our nation’s defense, and we cannot be good stewards until we lift the BCA caps.”
Still, despite the challenges, Norquist ended on a positive note, saying he was “genuinely enthusiastic” to start the department’s first audit and that he hoped Congress would do the right thing with the budget.
“You may wonder whether I think stable, robust funding — in the current environment — is achievable. It’s a fair question,” he said. “I am, quite honestly, optimistic. I believe the stakes are high, the parameters clear and our legislators, like the rest of us, have lived under the sword of sequestration for too long. I know the Congress will find a solution, and I remain hopeful that it will be soon.”
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.