Troops Just Want Congress to Stop Political Budget Games: Dunford

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to service members before the USO Holiday Tour at Operating Base Fenty, Dec. 24, 2017. (DoD/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to service members before the USO Holiday Tour at Operating Base Fenty, Dec. 24, 2017. (DoD/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Frustrated troops just want Congress to stop the political gamesmanship and pass a budget to fund the military, according to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

At a NATO summit meeting in Brussels, Dunford said Monday that the force "is very much aware of the budget debates, and it would be a very powerful signal for our elected leaders to pass a budget."

"On a day-to-day basis, they are focused on the mission, but the budget is very much on their minds," he said of those in the ranks.

Somehow, the House, the Senate and the White House have to get together and deliver a budget for the troops to justify their faith that "we are going to do our job and deliver for them the resources they need to do their job," Dunford said.

With another government shutdown looming at midnight Friday over the failure to pass a fiscal 2018 budget, House Republicans began pushing yet another Continuing Resolution to keep the government in business at fiscal 2017 levels until Feb. 16.

The proposed CR was to go before the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, with a planned House vote on it on Thursday. A simple majority vote would be needed in the House, but 60 votes are necessary in Senate under the current rules.

It would be the third CR since fiscal 2018 began Oct. 1 without appropriations for a proposed budget that includes nearly $700 billion for the Defense Department.

To no avail thus far, Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have been telling Congress again and again that the stopgap funding provided by CRs delays new acquisitions programs, prevents new starts, stifles readiness, disrupts planned growth for programs, and upends planning in general.

Mattis and Dunford are reciting from an old playbook on the budget. The nation has been operating on CRs at one point or another for the past nine years.

When it first submitted its budget request for fiscal 2018 back in May 2017, the DoD wrote at the top of the proposal, "Years of budget cuts and budget uncertainty have led to a depleted military, and it will take a number of years to undo the damage."

To get around the CRs on the issue of military pay, President Donald Trump issued an executive order last month -- just as other presidents before him have done -- to give the military a 2.4 percent pay raise.

The first paychecks with the new raise went out on Jan. 15 but, according to Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist, "no one gets paid" in the event of a government shutdown.

The website of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service states, "The Department of Defense has no legal authority to pay any personnel -- military or civilian -- for the days during which the government is shut down. The shutdown will not affect payments to retirees and annuitants as those funds come from a retirement trust fund."

However, Congress and the White House will almost certainly find a way around that to pay the military should a shutdown take place.

There are always exceptions in CRs and in shutdowns -- Congress calls them "anomalies" -- and military pay would get top priority in the House and Senate to avoid the political fallout.

For instance, the proposed CR to Feb. 16 includes language for a $4.5 billion "anomaly" for missile defense. It states, "Defense Missile Defeat and Defense Enhancements ... may be obligated and expended notwithstanding" the CR.

In addition, Congress during the last government shutdown of 16 days in 2013 immediately passed a bill exempting military pay. But it forgot other impacts of a shutdown on the military.

In 2013, death gratuity payments for 30 Gold Star families were cut off during the shutdown, forcing then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to rely on charitable contributions.

The 2013 shutdown also resulted in furloughs for about 350,000 DoD civilian workers, and some of them worked in child care at military bases.

In the current budget impasse, Trump has tried to frame the debate as an either/or battle between action on extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program for about 800,000 individuals brought to the U.S. as minors, and funding the military.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has repeatedly insisted that discussions about a funding deal be accompanied by a plan to vote to ensure that the DACA recipients, also referred to as "Dreamers," are allowed to stay in the U.S.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, charged that Democrats are injecting the DACA issue into the budget fight for political gain.

At a breakfast Tuesday with defense reporters, Thornberry said, "I am increasingly concerned on the DACA deal that some people might not want to resolve the issue. They may rather have the issue out there because they think it's to their political advantage."

At his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida over the weekend, Trump said, "I don't know if there will be a shutdown. There shouldn't be, because if there is, our military gets hurt very badly. We cannot let our military be hurt."

On Jan. 14, Trump tweeted, "DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don't really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our military."

In another Tweet on Tuesday, Trump said, "Democrats want to shut down the government over amnesty for all and border security. The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding military, at a time we need it more than ever."

Despite the budget impasse, and the possibility of a shutdown on Friday, Mattis told Pentagon reporters earlier this month that he is going ahead with his plan to unveil the National Defense Strategy on the same day, Jan. 19.

The strategy, prepared for Mattis by Dunford, will outline the strategic aims of the services. Mattis said much of it will be classified, but he would disclose as much as he can.

The announcement of the strategy will trigger the process of drafting the proposed DoD budget for fiscal 2019, raising the prospect that the DoD will be trying to figure out how much to spend next year, while operating without a budget this year and spending at levels authorized for 2017.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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