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House Unveils Short-term Spending Measure to Lock in Defense Cuts

With a government shutdown looming, Congress is still poised for inaction on its annual appropriations to keep federal agencies’ doors open. With only a couple of weeks until current spending laws expire, House leadership has unveiled a relatively noncontroversial proposal to keep the government operating past the end of this month. Unlike some past “continuing resolutions,” this one is relatively “clean,” meaning it’s largely devoid of extraneous policy riders and earmarks.

More importantly, this resolution represents the first acknowledgment by House leadership that they ought to adhere to current law spending caps (post-sequester funding levels set by the Budget Control Act) for the Pentagon. Even the most recently enacted omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law this past March (long after the failure of the Super Committee), did not conform to post-sequester spending caps.

As Russell Rumbaugh of the Stimson Center recently told Inside Defense, this new continuing resolution is “a huge deal,” because, “for the first time, House Republicans are openly voting to cut defense to post-sequester funding levels. The resolution explicitly says the sequester order is in effect, and it does not rebalance between defense and non-defense.” As Rumbaugh notes, this continuing resolution is especially significant given some members’ of Congress insistence that Pentagon cuts be mitigated by increasing reductions on the non-military, domestic side of the ledger.

The newly unveiled continuing resolution is a step in the right direction in that it avoids a costly government shutdown and acknowledges the reality of the post-sequester funding landscape (unlike every other spending proposal advanced since the Budget Control Act’s passage). However, Congress can and should do better by going through the regular budget and appropriations process—something that hasn’t happened since 1994.

Unfortunately, continuing resolutions adhere to prior year spending paths, which keep alive programs that Congress or the Pentagon have since chosen to curtail or improve. For example, earlier this year, the House completed consideration of its annual defense appropriations measure, during which amendments were adopted that cut funding for wasteful and inefficient programs associated with the redevelopment of Afghanistan and its security forces. These important spending reforms likely will not be implemented if Congress continues to run the federal government on auto-pilot.

While more spending reductions are needed to rein in profligate spending at the Pentagon, sequestration is a poor way to implement policy. Congress should pass a regular order defense appropriations bill that helps the Pentagon set priorities and move away from Cold War-era legacy systems that do not advance 21st century war fighting capabilities. Congress should implement reforms and policies that will make our country safer and our federal budget more accountable. POGO has some ideas for how to do this, as do many others from across the ideological spectrum.

In the meantime, Congress should at least avoid a government shutdown and abide by the spending limits they put into law.