WASHINGTON ― Congress is struggling to perform its most foundational duties this year, and experts say it’s starting to take its toll on national security. Lawmakers are at an impasse as a government shutdown looms, there’s plenty of uncertainty about the budget and one senator is blocking the promotions of hundreds of high-profile military officers.
The Pentagon is bracing for a government shutdown at the end of the month that would threaten troop pay while furloughing most of its civilian workers. The only hope to avoid it is a short-term funding bill that would still limit its ability to procure big-ticket weapons systems and start other new initiatives.
The Senate is also unlikely to confirm the president’s top military adviser, even as Gen. Mark Milley is required to step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of the month. His departure comes amid a logjam of more than 300 general and flag officer confirmations held up by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., over the Pentagon’s new abortion travel leave policy. And hundreds more senior military nominees are on the way.
“When you’re dealing with a shutdown situation and the double whammy of Sen. Tuberville’s hold, you’re not going to have our sons and daughters the best trained,” equipped or led, Arnold Punaro, a former Democratic staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense News. “We’re in the worst situation I think I’ve ever seen when it comes to putting our fundamental national security at risk.”
The looming failure of Congress to complete some of its most basic tasks has put additional pressure on the Defense Department, which has already become accustomed to operating under months-long stopgap funding bills for the past 25 years.
The issues on the Hill this month — and this year —are an extension of longer-term dysfunction, Elaine McCusker, a former Pentagon comptroller in the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Defense News.
“Congress has a fundamental responsibility to pass budgets, and it almost never does it on time,” she said.
House Republican leaders pulled their fiscal 2024 defense spending bill from the floor last week after they failed to whip enough votes from the right-wing Freedom Caucus to advance the $826 billion legislation. Democrats oppose the House’s FY24 defense spending bill because of Republican provisions that roll back the Pentagon’s abortion leave policy, medical care for transgender troops, diversity initiatives and climate provisions.
Republicans introduced a short-term spending measure on Sunday, but it includes an immigration bill opposed by the White House and Democrats. The partisan measure would extend government funding to Oct. 31. It would increase funding for the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs to the FY24 levels stipulated in the pending House appropriations bills, while cutting spending at other agencies 8% below FY23 levels.
The Freedom Caucus explicitly demanded Republican leaders add the immigration bill and spending cuts to the short-term funding bill last week, but many of its members nonetheless say they’ll still vote against it.
The Defense Department, preparing for the worst, released shutdown implementation guidance last week.
Shutdowns, say current and former Pentagon officials, are a self-imposed quagmire. Almost all of the department’s civilian staff — across the country, not only in Washington — is furloughed. Military personnel must go without pay until it ends. Ordinary work across the military goes from routine to taxing.
“Even the most basic things, like moving trainees or deploying troops, need to be approved by exception,” said John Ferarri, a retired Army general now with the American Enterprise Institute.
House Defense Appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., said last week “maintenance and repairs to hardware infrastructure would not be permitted” under a shutdown.
And Mira Resnick, the deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees arms transfers at the State Department, noted on Tuesday that under past shutdowns her agency was unable to approve foreign military sales requests made by other countries.
If Congress fails to fund the Defense Department, it can’t place contracts to begin construction on major weapons platforms. For instance, the Navy will not be able to start work on constructing four ships: a frigate, a submarine tender, the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and a Virginia-class attack submarine.
Even under a stopgap funding bill, procurement on many platforms won’t be able to start. The Navy has requested an exemption to continue construction on the Columbia-class submarine in a short-term funding bill — if Congress can pass one — but that would not apply to other ships or Pentagon programs like the B-21 stealth bomber.
Republicans’ proposed stopgap funding bill would also prohibit the Defense Department from spending money on multiyear munitions procurement funding, which the Pentagon requested in its budget this year to expand the strained industrial base.
A succession of continuing resolutions, or CRs, over the past two decades has prevented the Pentagon from ramping up munitions production, including many now important to Ukraine like the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante said last week.
If Congress does not pass FY24 appropriations legislation by the end of the year, the debt ceiling agreement mandates all federal agencies — including the Defense Department — operate on a one-year continuing resolution with a 1% cut from FY23 levels.
Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Defense News this scenario could hamper the Air Force’s plan to field the next-generation refueling tanker by the mid-2030s.
The Tuberville blockade
Rep. Mike Garcia of California, a defense appropriator, is taking on his fellow Republicans in both the House and the Senate. Even as he lobbies his Freedom Caucus colleagues to avoid a shutdown and fund the Pentagon, he’s requested a meeting with Tuberville to discuss the impact of his six-month-long hold on senior military promotions.
“While I understand what he’s trying to do, what he’s actually doing is hurting our military readiness levels right now,” Garcia told reporters last week.
The blockade has already halted more than 300 military confirmations, and will create five joint chiefs vacancies once Milley steps down at the end of the month.
There are military officials now serving in those roles in an acting capacity. But the holds have also created uncertainty for troops down the ranks trying to plan for their futures, forced senior military officials to perform two jobs at once and raised questions about what authorities acting officers do and don’t have absent Senate confirmation.
Garcia noted the officers up for promotion can’t get reimbursed for their moving costs or see their pay increases until the Senate confirms them.
An August report from the Congressional Research Service found it would take the Senate some 700 hours of floor time to confirm the 301 outstanding nominees. And the Armed Services Committee expects to receive roughly 300 more military promotions by the end of the year, meaning it would take more than a year for the Senate to confirm all of them even if it neglected its other duties — like funding the government.
Tuberville acknowledged to Defense News last week that “it would take a long time” to confirm the hundreds of military nominees, but nonetheless called on Democrats to start stand-alone votes on the most senior nominees, beginning with the Joint Chiefs members. Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee have argued doing this will forfeit lower-level confirmations in favor of the Joint Chiefs while incentivizing other senators to hold military promotions hostage in the future.
Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the vice chief of naval operations, already finds herself performing two roles and is one of the nominees behind Tuberville’s wall.
At her confirmation hearing last week to serve as chief of naval operations, a position she now fills in an acting capacity, she noted it would take “years to recover” from Tuberville’s promotion delays, even if the Senate eventually confirms them.
“Just at the three-star level, it would take about three to four months just to move all the people around,” she said.
She testified that performing two jobs at once has stretched her bandwidth thin, noting the dual hats she wears meant she didn’t have enough time to get briefed on a new Pentagon study regarding the submarine-industrial base before her confirmation hearing.
Franchetti noted that if the Senate confirms her, she would seek to set up a disruptive capabilities office as a successor to the Navy’s Unmanned Task Force. But as an acting official, it’s unclear whether she has the authority to do so without congressional confirmation.
The holds have also prevented more junior officers from moving up the chain of command since the nominees held up by Tuberville remain in their posts absent Senate confirmation.
Uniformed officials, usually hesitant to weigh in on congressional matters, have become in recent weeks more vocal about criticizing Tuberville’s holds.
Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command who would have retired by now if not for the holds, warned last week at the Air Force Association conference the blockade could create retention issues among the top brass.
For his part, Ferrari said Congress’ inability to confirm uncontroversial military leaders and get funding bills on the floor points to a failure of governance that hurts national security.
“We’ve taken our own security hostage, and we’re threatening to shoot the hostage,” he said.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.