US Defense Secretary James Mattis had strong words regarding looming threats to national security including those from terrorist organizations, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. But his most powerful warning, presented in a prepared statement, focused on an issue that hit a bit closer to home: certain actions of the US Congress.
Mattis spoke harshly regarding the effectiveness of the legislative branch and its impact on the US military, specifically discussing the inability to pass budgets on time and the refusal to remove budget caps that were approved as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011, also known as “sequestration.”
As reported by The Daily Beast, Mattis said, “In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role.” He went on to say, “[Congress] has clocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk.”
“Despite tremendous efforts of this committee,” said Mattis during separate addresses to the House Armed Services Committee as well as the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, “Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”
All federal discretionary spending was capped through fiscal year 2021 when the Budget Control Act was passed. It also required the federal government reduce planned spending by $2.4 trillion over a 10 year period that began in 2011.
The associated cap cut the Defense Department budget below the point it determined was needed to manage necessary operations, including paying military service members, maintaining equipment, and pursuing new technology. Mattis has argued that the Defense Department budget should be tens of billions higher than is currently allocated.
“No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration,” said Mattis.
Congress does have the ability to lift the one-year spending caps associated with the Budget Control Act. Mattis proposed a Defense Department budget of $640 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, an amount that is $52 billion over the current cap. To pass that budget, Congress would either need to pass a one-year exemption to the cap or repeal sequestration.
For the past nine years running, Congress has failed to pass budgets in time for the start of the new fiscal year, which occurs every October. When this occurs, the Defense Department must operate on temporary extensions based on the prior year’s budget, a move known as “continuing resolutions” that allows the Pentagon to spend funds on existing programs only.
Mattis affirmed that the Defense Department not only requires a larger budget but one approved in a timely manner. He said, “It will take a number of years of higher funding – delivered on time – to restore readiness.”
While lawmakers expressed sympathy in regards to Mattis’ request for budgetary help, they did not commit to ending sequestration or the cycle of continuing resolutions.