Congress passes fourth stopgap funding bill as 1% sequester looms

by Vern Evans

Congress on Thursday passed its fourth consecutive short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. The temporary spending measure extends Defense Department funding at fiscal 2023 levels through March 22.

Five months into the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, lawmakers have yet to pass a full FY24 budget. The uncertainty has raised concerns in the Pentagon that Congress may put the department on a one-year continuing resolution with a 1% sequester.

Without an FY24 defense budget, the Pentagon remains unable to implement new modernization programs and cannot take new steps to expand the defense-industrial base amid wars in Europe and the Middle East.

“The lack of full-year funding has put key government programs in purgatory, wasted taxpayer money on outdated budgets and hindered forward progress that will make the country more secure, push us to the next levels of technological advancement and support American competitiveness in key industries like aerospace,” Aerospace Industries Association chief executive Eric Fanning said in a statement.

The House voted 320-99 to pass its fourth temporary spending measure, and the Senate followed suit shortly thereafter in a 77-13 vote. Under the latest stopgap spending bill, funds appropriated for Veterans Affairs and military construction will expire on March 8, two weeks before Defense Department funding runs out.

Congress is expected to vote on the FY24 Veterans Affairs and military construction spending bill next week. But lawmakers have yet to finalize the FY24 Pentagon spending bill.

The right-wing House Freedom Caucus has insisted on several policy riders in the appropriations bill that Democrats have ruled out as poison pills, including bans on the Pentagon’s abortion travel leave policy and medical care for transgender troops.

Last year’s debt ceiling deal caps FY24 defense spending at $886 billion. If Congress does not pass a full FY24 federal budget by April 30, the debt ceiling agreement puts government funding on a one-year continuing resolution that would cut spending at the Pentagon and all other federal agencies by 1%.

Pentagon sounds the alarm

The undersecretaries of the Navy, Army and Air Force told reporters Wednesday a one-year stopgap funding measure at FY23 levels would result in billions of dollars in “misaligned” funds at the Defense Department.

To cope with a one-year stopgap measure, they said the Defense Department would first have to prioritize current operations in places like Europe and the Middle East, followed by personnel, then acquisition and modernization.

Navy Under Secretary Erik Raven noted this would result in the military submitting “unprecedented” reprogramming requests to Congress. The Navy, for instance, would need Congress to approve a $13 billion reprogramming request to address $26 billion in misaligned funds.

It would also result in a $2 billion shortfall for the Virginia-class attack submarine program and another $800 million shortfall for amphibious ship spending. Congress has provided a $2.2 billion carveout for the Navy to continue work on the Columbia-class ballistic submarine program, most at risk of falling behind schedule.

Other services would not be able to begin new initiatives either, including a highly prioritized munitions ramp-up following the influx of arms the U.S. has sent to Ukraine and Israel with more due for Taiwan.

“These are production rate increases, new starts — both in programs for acquisition as well as military construction projects — that we cannot start,” said Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo.

Congress has still not funded the multiyear munitions procurement plans it authorized for FY23 and FY24, and Camarillo noted those funds are needed “to give industry the incentive to be able to facilitize, invest in a workforce and be able to do those extra shifts that we know that we need in order to restore our munitions.”

The $95 billion foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan also includes considerable funding to ramp up the munitions-industrial base. But House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has so far refused to put it on the floor for a vote after the Senate passed it 70-29 earlier this month.

For its part, the Air Force warned earlier this month a 1% sequester would reduce its buying power by $13 billion and put $2.8 billion in space modernization projects on hold.

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.

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