Lawmakers grow impatient with delayed Biden budget

House appropriators worry about Army modernization cuts as White House finalizes fiscal 2022 request.

budget squeeze (rosedesigns/Shutterstock.com)
 

Lawmakers are worried about potentially significant cuts to the Army’s budget and modernization efforts amid increasing frustration at the delay of the Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 budget.

Congress has held several budget and appropriations hearings around the fiscal 2022 defense budget in recent weeks, and the absence of the president’s full budget request has begun to grate on lawmakers.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said she was “disappointed” at the lack of a 2022 budget as it limited the hearing’s discussions.

“I too am disappointed we don’t have a budget in front of us. It would be a much different and more robust discussion that we would be having,” McCollum said during a May 5 hearing on the Army’s budget, adding that a pandemic and a bumpy transition have hampered the White House’s efforts.

But for Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), the concern is less with the budget’s timing and more that the Army would take the “lion’s share of the cuts,” specifically near-future plans and, most notably, soldiers and personnel. 

Troops and near-term modernization investments “are two items that we can’t afford to cut,” Carter said after noting the work Army Futures Command has done to shape the services’ modernization efforts. “We’ve got to figure out some kind of compromise.”

John Whitley, the acting Army secretary, said the Army has been building “risk” into its budgets through a zero-based budgeting approach that requires justification for each expense -- a process the service calls “night court.”

“We know that readiness can turn on a dime and as we’ve talked about through the night court process, we’ve self-funded, we’ve realigned resources to fund a lot of [those] modernization efforts,” Whitley testified.

“There is not a situation where we can say if we have less we’ll still continue to do the same level of effort,” Whitley said. “The question is where are we going to take that risk: Are we going to take that risk against operations today, are we going to take risk against our fielding of replacement equipment for the next several years, or are we going to risk against modernization and our ability to maintain overmatch against our near-peer adversaries.”

Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, said the services’ modernization priorities are unchanged and that they know where to make investments and cuts.

“The resources we get, we know where we’ll have to make cuts. And if we don’t get the resources that we think we need then, by law I have an obligation to come back to you and lay out what those unfunded requirements are,” McConville testified.

And the potential for significant unfunded requirements, particularly regarding modernization efforts like long-range precision fires, could fuel a push from Republican appropriators to add to the topline number.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the committee’s vice ranking member, said he thinks more money will be added based on the unmet needs document.

“I’m not critical of the administration being a little late in getting the budget...it happens to all of them,” Cole said. “I am concerned just looking at the skinny budget at what the level is and -- I make this point not in a partisan way, but just to remind the committee that we can do what we want here.”

Appropriators have adjusted funding levels in the past, Cole noted.

“I think when we look at the overall budget as proposed...I don’t think that’s acceptable and I think we’re going to have to come to a deal that puts additional resources on the military side and probably detracts a bit from what the president wants to do domestically,” he said. “And that deal would be much, much better than a CR.”

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