Congress passes stopgap funding bill, hampering Pentagon initiatives

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WASHINGTON ― Congress on Wednesday passed a temporary spending bill needed to avoid a government shutdown, funding military construction through Jan.19 and the rest of the Defense Department through Feb. 2.

It’s the second short-term funding bill, or continuing resolution, Congress passed in two months, freezing budgets at the last fiscal year’s level. If lawmakers fail to pass a full defense spending bill, the Pentagon could face a year-long continuing resolution for FY24.

The lack of a full defense spending bill for the first four months of the fiscal year will hamper Pentagon contracting as the Defense Department seeks to accelerate it. Defense officials spent the week warning publicly that programs from shipbuilding to Air Force procurement to the wilted munitions industrial base will be harmed.

“It’s the additive domino effect of delays, and the particularly hard hit on the sub-tier supplier base that really on the acquisition side compounds the problem,” Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Radha Plumb told Defense News.

She pointed to counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems slated for delivery in 2024 and 2025 and that could be delayed by the continuing resolution. Plumb also noted that the short-term spending bills threaten Pentagon subcontractors, who depend on stable revenue.

Plumb’s boss, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante, told the Politico Defense Summit on Tuesday that continuing resolutions have a “devastating effect” and can lead to layoffs within the defense industry.

“If the [continuing resolution] ends in January…the money that goes will not flow out to the commands that do the contracting probably until about May because of all the processes,” said LaPlante. “Nothing happens without contracting.”

The short-term funding bills cascade delays in Pentagon contracting and can punt scheduled training to later dates. But they at least avoid some of the most disastrous impacts caused by government shutdowns, which threaten troop pay and furlough most civilian workers.

The Senate on Wednesday passed 87-11 the bifurcated continuing resolution to fund military construction through January 19 and the Defense Department through February 2. The House voted 336-95 to pass it on Tuesday. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the measure into law.

More House Democrats voted to pass the bill than Republicans. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., had to use the same procedural mechanism to move it to the floor that his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., resorted to for passage of the first short-term funding bill in September.

This tactic led to McCarthy’s ouster as speaker in a vote instigated by a handful of right-wing Republicans. But that same group of lawmakers has not sought to oust Johnson despite their opposition to the second continuing resolution.

Shortly after voting on the continuing resolution on Wednesday, the Senate also voted to begin conference negotiations with the House on the FY24 defense authorization bill. Still, Congress must also agree on final spending levels and legislation for the full FY24 military construction and defense appropriations bills to fund that authorization bill.

‘A screeching halt’

Inside the bill is a rare exemption that allows the Navy to begin building the second Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine before Congress passes a full FY24 defense budget. The Navy requested this carveout to keep the program from falling behind an already tight schedule, which could potentially create a nuclear deterrence gap.

“This is a critical exception for the Navy’s number one acquisition priority that will ensure construction remains on schedule as our shipyards and suppliers dramatically ramp up capacity,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee’s sea power panel, whose district includes the Electric Boat shipyard that builds the submarines.

Still, the Navy can’t proceed with three of its six shipbuilding programs until Congress passes a full FY24 defense spending bill: the Virginia-class attack submarine, the Constellation-class frigate and a submarine tender replacement.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the Center for a New American Security on Monday that the continuing resolutions bring new initiatives “to a screeching halt.” About a dozen of the service’s new starts would remain in limbo without Congressional approval.

Among the programs affected, Kendall said, would be the Air Force’s C3 battle management system, part of the Pentagon’s larger goal to form a unified network powered by artificial intelligence. Spending on the system, he said, was scheduled to double next year but can’t without a full spending bill.

Kendall also noted that the Air Force has multiyear procurement requests for three munitions pending before Congress: the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range.

The Pentagon hopes to use multiyear buys for munitions, a mechanism usually reserved for larger items like ships and aircraft, will jolt that sector of the industrial base, which is lagging as the U.S. rushes massive amounts of weaponry to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Plumb, the Pentagon acquisition official, noted that continuing resolutions also hamper Defense Department efforts to ramp up munitions production for items such as 155mm artillery shells.

“We’re looking to get 100,000 rounds per month, and we need the workforce and the machines and the factories to be able to do that,” said Plumb. “All of that gets delayed, and that’s on a more traditional munition.”

“You can look at the other timelines in terms of new starts and new technologies that need to get integrated in,” she added. “That looks even worse.”

If Congress ultimately fails to pass a full FY24 defense budget, the May debt ceiling agreement mandates that a full-year continuing resolution with a 1% cut from FY23 spending levels goes into effect.

“We’ve sadly learned to adapt our business practices to manage through these more short term [continuing resolutions],” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at the Politico Defense summit. “Heaven forbid if we went closer to a year continuing resolution, then yes, some of our new modernization programs would be significantly disrupted.”

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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