Politicians Leave the Military in the Lurch – Again and Again
Once again politicians are heading for the exits, determined to return to the campaign trail without finishing their most important job: to provide for the nation’s defense. Unfortunately, the trend line is clear: politicians are getting dramatically worse at providing on-time funding and authorization for the armed forces. This pattern of neglect is weakening Congress’s ability to conduct proper oversight of the military and imposes a variety of unnecessary distractions and complications for the military itself.
Every year, Congress writes two major defense bills: the defense appropriations bill, which funds the military, and the defense authorization bill, which establishes policies and the legal authority for what the military can do. While the Department of Defense represents about 15 percent of the total federal budget, the funding and oversight of DOD are essential due to the millions of employees, billions of dollars in programs, and critical operations around the world.
These bills are also important for the smooth functioning of our military. Soldiers deserve to be paid and paid on time. The legal authority for military operations, major policies or training our allies can expire, leaving the mission in jeopardy. And it’s hard to buy major weapons systems or manage huge contracts efficiently if Congress doesn’t give the Pentagon a budget on time.
Not having defense funding or policy bills in place when the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1 creates a variety of problems for the Department of Defense. If Congress doesn’t do its job, it’s the military left holding the bag.
Unfortunately, the record of politicians getting these two bills passed on time is rather poor and getting worse. And I use “politicians” on purpose -- the fault lies not just with Congress but also with those in the White House and senior political appointees at the Pentagon. For example, much of the delay on the defense funding and policy bills this year and last is because Democrats, in both the White House and Congress, oppose a funding increase for the military without an equal funding increase for the rest of the government.
A review of the last few decades of defense funding and policy bills shows that the politicians are getting significantly worse at delivering these bills on time. While Bill Clinton was President, the defense policy bill was signed into law an average of 36 days late, or about a month into the new fiscal year. During the George W. Bush administration, the average rose to 61 days late. The average for the Obama administration is 77 days late.
In the Clinton administration, Congress finished the final defense policy bill before Oct. 1 in three of the eight years. Under Bush, it was two, and under Obama, it hasn’t happened once. Sept. 27, 2008, was the last time that Congress passed a final defense policy bill before the new fiscal year began.
The history of the defense funding bill is similar. During Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, it was signed into law an average of 16 days after Oct. 1. Five out of Clinton’s eight years saw a defense funding bill passed before the new fiscal year began. On George W. Bush’s watch, the average rose to 33 days late but the bill was actually on time four of eight years.
Under President Obama, however, the situation has gotten significantly worse. The defense funding bill hasn’t been signed on time once in his seven years and is an average of 114 days late. If Obama is able to sign this year’s defense funding bill into law before he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017, he will be beating his own average.
There is one small bright spot (if you can call it that) in the historical record on defense bills. The voting on final passage of the defense policy bill over the last few decades does not seem to be getting more partisan. There was a period of higher than average bipartisan support of defense policy bills during President George W. Bush’s term in office, with the defense policy bill averaging 98 yes votes (out of a possible 100) in the Senate. Under President Obama, the defense policy bill has averaged 86 yes votes in the Senate, which is higher than the average of 82 under President Clinton, and very close to the average of 88 under President George H.W. Bush. Votes in the House show a similar peak under George W. Bush but are still higher under Obama than under Clinton or H.W. Bush.
While final passage of the defense policy bill is only one measure, it does seem to show that there is still a great deal of bipartisan agreement on national security issues. Unfortunately, agreement on the issues has not prevented both parties from lowering the priority of getting defense bills completed on time.
The defense policy bill is now usually almost three months late, and the defense funding bill is usually almost four months late. A full one-third of the fiscal year is going by with the Department of Defense and our men and women in uniform operating under the increased pressure of not having a defense funding bill. A full quarter of the year is going by without Congress’s new policies and oversight efforts being in effect.
This is not how good government should operate. Congress and the president should work together to ensure that “providing for the common defense” is the top priority in reality, not just in rhetoric. The United States faces growing threats to our vital interests in the real world and our increasingly smaller, older and weaker military needs all the help it can get—help delivered on-time, not half-way into the next year.