Stop-gap funding boosts maintenance, keeps cuts

Defense analysts say Congress offered the Defense Department short term relief but failed to provide long term salvation from deep cuts.

The U.S. military will have more money for training flights and field exercises under a stop-gap funding measure that does little to address the bigger challenge of automatic spending cuts, analysts said.

The Republican-controlled House on March 21 followed the Democrat-controlled Senate in approving legislation to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The move came a week before the March 27 expiration of the current stop-gap measure, known as a continuing resolution, and helped to avoid the possibility of a government shutdown next week.

Without a full-year budget, the Defense Department was forced to operate the first half of fiscal 2013 at funding levels similar to last year, causing a shortfall in some accounts, including operation and maintenance. Now, it will be able to replenish and balance those accounts, though it still must grapple with the automatic cuts known as sequestration, according to Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

“It’s better, but it doesn’t fully resolve the problem,” he said in a telephone interview. The military is “still going to see deferred maintenance, canceled training activities, civilian furloughs — most of the effects we were expecting from sequestration.”

The automatic spending cuts, mandated under deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011, total about $1.2 trillion over the next decade, with about half coming from national-security programs.

The reductions, which began March 1, were to slice about $46 billion from the Defense Department budget in the remaining months of the fiscal year. With the passage of another continuing resolution, that figure is now probably closer to about $40 billion, according to Kevin Brancato, a defense analyst at Bloomberg Government in Washington.

“It’s softening sequestration for the military,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s not softening sequestration for the contractors.”

The legislation gives the Defense Department more latitude in which areas of the budget to cut, though it’s unclear which lines will be affected. The White House has excluded military personnel pay from reductions and the Pentagon plans to limit the amount of savings that come from forcing civilian personnel to take unpaid leaves of absence known as furloughs.

“The only amount left is the cut from contractors,” Brancato said. “That’s the only pot of money left.”

Army and Marine Corps training activities, Air Force flying hours and Navy sailing days were curtailed because of the fiscal challenges in Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this month, according to a Defense Department press release.

“If sequester continues and the continuing resolution is extended in its current form, other damaging effects will become apparent,” Hagel said, according to the release. “Our number one concern is our people – military and civilian.”