The Army’s 2022 budget isn’t out yet, but the Chief of Staff is already promising Congress a detailed Unfunded Requirements list of all the service priorities that will be left out – a list legislators will look for eagerly.
“What we’ve got right now is an Army budget that has risk built into it,” said John Whitley, the acting Army Secretary (and a Trump holdover). “It was prudent risk. It was risk taken to fund modernization and to be a good steward of the taxpayer resources, but what that means is, then when funding becomes unpredictable, you don’t have buffers, you don’t have the ability to absorb that as easily. We are going to protect modernization, but there is risk there, and there will be things we cannot do.”
While the Biden Administration has only released the topline budget for the whole Defense Department – effectively flat, or a slight cut counting inflation – there’s already considerable fear of what Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley called a “bloodletting” of the Army to fund air and naval forces. As GOP Rep. John Carter put it today, “it looks like the Army’s going to take the lion’s share of the cuts,” potentially losing a full Armored Brigade Combat Team.
The Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James McConville, didn’t answer about the armor brigade directly. He did emphasize this: “If we don’t get the resources we think we need, by law I have an obligation to come back to you and lay out what those unfunded requirements are.”
Not quite 15 minutes later, GOP Rep. Tom Cole picked up McConville’s point. “I would again urge you, and I know you will do this, to make sure that that unmet needs document really gives us clarity,” he said, “so if … we add additional money — which frankly, I think we will, that’s just my personal opinion— that we do it in ways that are consistent with the professional judgments of the military. That’s going to be an extraordinarily important document,” Cole said.
Cole predicted Republicans and Democrats would come to a deal that reined in some of Biden’s big increases in domestic spending and plussed up the Pentagon. “That deal would be much, much better than a CR,” he said, referring to a Continuing Resolution, an awkward and inefficient stopgap mechanism to fund federal agencies when Congress can’t agree on appropriations before the Oct. 1 beginning of the fiscal year.
Cole and other Republicans lamented the Biden Administration’s flat defense topline and its delays in delivering the full budget. Today’s hearing was originally supposed to review the Army’s budget request, but there’s no such request to review.
“This delay is very concerning to me, [and] I know it is to the chair,” said the ranking Republican on the defense appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Ken Calvert. “It increases the risk of a continuing resolution that nobody would like to have.”
“For the record, I too am disappointed we don’t have a full budget in front of us,” agreed the Democratic chairwoman of the subcommittee, Rep. Betty McCollum. “It would be a much different and more robust discussion we’d be having.”
But, she noted, the Trump Administration’s first budget wasn’t out until late May, either, and Biden has had to manage budgeting amidst a global pandemic, a contentious transition, and a full-fledged riot that seized the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The new target for the budget is around May 23, according to sources familiar with budgeting planning. That ties the record for the latest budget submission, is currently held by Trump Administration, which released its first spending request on May 23, 2017.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has already said it’s not taking up the budget until July, and the House Armed Services Committee is uncertain when they will begin their markup. So the prospect of a Continuing Resolution is very real.
“When a budget request has been submitted on time, the delay in enacting the appropriations has only been about one month,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on a recent call with reporters. In years when the budget request was submitted more than a week late, however, “we’ve seen the average CR go closer to almost four months on average.”
Overall, Harrison said, “the later this budget request is submitted, the harder it’s going to be for them to get this through anywhere close to the start of the fiscal year.”