The Army's top officer admonished Congress on Wednesday for its inability to approve a defense spending bill for the current fiscal year and rejected the notion the legislative breakdown represents a new reality on Capitol Hill that the armed forces should become accustomed to.
"Failure to pass the budget, in my view as an American citizen and the chief of staff of the United States Army, constitutes professional malpractice," Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee.
Milley and the four-star chiefs of the other military services told the GOP-led panel that they would have to significantly curtail combat operations and training if Republicans and Democrats fail to end their bickering over the federal budget and approve only a stopgap spending measure.
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The stopgap bills, called continuing resolutions, have been used frequently over the last eight years. A so-called CR locks the Pentagon's budget in at last year's level, which bars military services from starting new programs or ending old ones. The service chiefs described how they are forced to move money from their weapons modernization and training accounts to pay for current missions.
Milley used a smoking analogy to describe the cumulative impact of continuing resolutions. "One cigarette's not going to kill," Milley said. "But you do that for eight, 10, 20 years, 30 years, you're eventually going to die of lung cancer."
The general bristled when Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., suggested stopgap bills may require the armed forces adapt to a "new normal."
"I'm not suggesting that I like that," Davis said.
"The world is a dangerous place and becoming more dangerous every day," Milley responded. "Pass the budget."
Milley and other the other service chiefs warned the committee of the impact of going a full year without a regular budget. The House passed a $578 billion defense spending bill in March for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. But the Senate has yet to act on the legislation. Lawmakers haven't addressed a $30 billion supplement to the 2017 budget that President Donald Trump requested last month.
Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said he just returned from a trip to Spain where he met with sailors assigned to the USS Ross, a guided-missile destroyer operating in the contested waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
"Those sailors know clearly they are sailing into harm's way," Richardson said. "Back here at home, there's less evidence that we get it. There is tangible lack of urgency. We're not doing what we should to help them win."
Unless the 2017 spending bill and the $30 billion supplemental is approved, Richardson said, "three ships scheduled to deploy to Europe and the Middle East will stay home, our pilots will not fly and their jets will sit on the ramp needing maintenance, (and) we may lose skilled sailors because we cannot fund their bonuses." He also said stocks of critical munitions will remain too low and known vulnerabilities to cyberattacks will go unrepaired.
Senior U.S. military officials have cautioned many times before about the need for Congress to avoid stopgap measures and do its job of passing individual spending bills. Yet the deep ideological divides have stoked worries that another continuing resolution is in the military's future.
A temporary governmentwide spending bill approved late last year runs out at midnight April 28. Behind the scenes, lawmakers are working on the $1 trillion-plus legislation to keep the armed forces and the rest of government running through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. But lawmakers have a two-week recess in the middle of April, which leaves little time to hammer out an agreement that will win enough support.
An Army information paper submitted to Congress ahead of the hearing said that a continuing resolution that runs until the end of September would force the service "to essentially cease training" on July 15. The impact on the service's immediate readiness for combat will be severe, according to the document.
"This means that our decisive action readiness will degrade and our risk increases with the loss of the training and the training time that cannot be bought back," the Army said.
The service estimated that dozens of weapons procurement initiatives will be affected, including programs to make munitions more lethal and acquire better combat vehicles and helicopters.
A catch-all temporary spending measure also would leave the services unable to maintain the active-duty troop levels ordered by Congress, according to the Army information paper and documents sent to lawmakers by the other services.
Trump also is seeking a $54 billion increase in defense spending for the 2018 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.