Service Chiefs Warn Congress: Full-Year Stopgap Spending Will Disrupt PCSs, Bonuses, Training

Members of the North Dakota Air National Guard
Members of the North Dakota Air National Guard hurry away from a 54th Helicopter Squadron as they are dropped into position for a security forces force on force training scenario at the Minot Air Force Base, N.D., June 24, 2021. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by David H. Lipp)

Reenlistment bonuses, permanent change of station moves, training exercises, sexual assault prevention funding and more could all be at risk if Congress doesn't pass a regular Pentagon spending bill this year, top military officers said Tuesday.

The stark warning from leaders was delivered to a House panel ahead of a hearing this week on the potential effects of a full-year stopgap spending measure, which may be necessary if Congress can't agree on annual funding legislation. The chiefs of the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Space Force, as well as the vice chief of the Army, submitted concerns over such a measure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR.

Though the chiefs submitted separate statements, they echoed common themes, including concern about ripple effects on service members and their families if lawmakers punt on federal funding.

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"An extended CR would hurt the most -- and be the hardest to recover from -- at the individual Marine and family level," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger wrote. "Marines need predictability, some assurance that the government will take care of them and their family."

Marines are "fearless warriors" in combat, but "they take far fewer chances with their family" and the loss of support funding under a CR could damage trust among troops and threaten the all-volunteer force, Berger wrote.

"Failure to pass a budget results in a loss of trust, a belief that government let them down. We cannot go down that path," he added.

The scheduled Wednesday hearing is coming as Congress remains locked in a stalemate over fiscal 2022 government spending three and a half months after the fiscal year started.

In December, Congress passed a defense policy bill that authorized a $768 billion defense budget for fiscal 2022, including $740 billion for the Pentagon. But that money won't actually become a reality until Congress passes a separate defense appropriations bill.

Right now, the Pentagon and the rest of the federal government are operating under a CR, which essentially keeps the government on autopilot by extending last year's funding levels and preventing new programs from being started. The current CR expires Feb. 18, at which point Congress must either pass regular appropriations bills, extend the CR again or face a government shutdown.

The Pentagon has started nine of the last 10 years on CRs, the longest of which lasted seven months. As such, the military has adopted tactics to prevent disruptions during short-term CRs, such as planning to start new programs later in the year.

But a yearlong CR would be unprecedented, and warnings about the effects of one have grown more dire as Congress appears to make little progress on reaching a spending agreement.

Lawmakers' dispute has largely centered on domestic spending increases and policy changes supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, such as Democratic efforts to eliminate the so-called Hyde Amendment that bans federal funds from going toward abortions.

But as the fight drags on, Democrats are citing defense spending needs to pressure Republicans in negotiations.

"As we move closer to the new Feb. 18 deadline, some Republicans have disturbingly suggested forcing the Department of Defense to operate under a full-year CR," House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and defense subcommittee Chair Betty McCollum, D-Minn., wrote in a memo Tuesday as they released the service chiefs' written testimony. "This approach would ignore current needs and have serious and harmful consequences on our national security."

Because certain spending increases have to be funded by law, such as the 2.7% pay raise for troops that took effect Jan. 1, the military would have to make cuts elsewhere to cover those costs.

In his statement to the committee, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. "C.Q." Brown compared the possibility of a full-year CR to the 2013 across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that similarly resulted from congressional dysfunction.

"We should note that the Air Force took over half a decade to recover from the negative impacts to readiness caused by the 2013 sequestration," Brown wrote. "As much as a year-long Continuing Resolution affects our Air Force fiscally, the impact it has to our rate of change is more shattering. All the money in the world cannot buy more time; time is irrecoverable, and when you are working to keep pace against well-resourced and focused competitors, time matters."

For personnel accounts, the Air Force could lose up to $1 billion under a full-year CR, which could affect 98,000 PCS moves, Brown said. There could also be a $127 million shortfall that requires curtailing or canceling annual training and professional military education courses.

The Air Force could also lose up to $167 million for incentive and retention bonuses, Brown added.

Cuts in Air Force operations and maintenance funding could mean losing $5.2 million intended for sexual assault and harassment programs; $900,000 for suicide prevention programs; $6 million in diversity and inclusion training and scholarships; and $7.7 million for violence and self-harm prevention programs, according to Brown.

Flying hours would also be cut to "well below what is required to maintain high levels of proficiency," and "shutting down flying squadrons" – as the Air Force did during sequestration – "would again be likely," Brown said.

For the Marines, Berger highlighted that the "somewhat unique" way the service uses reserve forces as part of the total force means a full-year CR would leave insufficient funds to mobilize reservists and require relying instead on active-duty components that weren't scheduled to be used.

Berger also warned about the possibility of curtailing bonuses, reenlistment incentives and PCS moves, putting particular emphasis on the uncertainty that individual Marines and their families could face about their futures.

"A Marine sergeant or captain who is married with kids has to decide whether to renew a lease on the house they rent, but the family isn't sure if the Marine Corps can afford to relocate them next summer, as planned," Berger wrote. "If they don't move as planned -- will that impact promotion opportunities? The Marine's spouse doesn't know whether to accept a new job offer or try and hold onto the one they have today. Will there be a bonus if they reenlist? Marines in critically short specialties typically receive incentive pays -- will that be cut off?"

Vice Chief of Staff for the Army Gen. Joseph Martin warned his service could face a total shortfall of $12.9 billion, including $3.7 billion from military pay, research and acquisition, and military construction and family housing programs.

The Space Force, which is in only its second year of existence, would have its development stunted, including delaying the transfer of the Army's 53rd Signals Battalion and the Navy's Narrowband Satellite Operations Center into the Space Force, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond wrote.

In the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday warned the service might have to cut end strength by reducing planned accessions from 31,500 sailors by 23,000.

A full-year CR would also mean "immediately stopping" initial special and incentive pays and selected reenlistment bonus contracts, as well as delaying training and maintenance, Gilday added.

"We are breaking faith with our Sailors," he wrote. "Pilots who don't fly, mariners that don't sail, maintainers that don't maintain, will not stay with us. The combined impact of a year-long CR on our world-class workforce would be yet another erosion of our military advantage over China."

The alarms from the military services come after the Department of Veterans Affairs issued its own similarly stark warning last month. Under a full-year CR, the VA would operate on a discretionary budget $1.8 billion lower than President Joe Biden's fiscal 2022 budget proposal and $9 billion short in mandatory spending.

"Without that funding, there's a real risk that we would not be able to make full payments to veterans for [disability] compensation and pension requirements through September 2022," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a call with reporters Dec. 17.

The VA would also face a $941 million shortfall in community care -- the VA's outsourced health program -- and a $458 million shortfall in the construction budget. It would need to scale back its hiring and training of new personnel to manage disability claims – personnel that officials say are needed to address the backlog of claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration, McDonough added.

"What I'm really worried about is it seems several members of Congress are comfortable with the idea that we operate under a continuing resolution for the entire FY '22," McDonough said. "A full-year CR would have a deleterious impact on all VA operations."

-- This article has been updated to correct Adm. Gilday's statement on possible reductions to planned accessions in the Navy.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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