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The Defense Appropriations Bill May Be Timely, But It’s Not Better

The House Appropriations Committee’s new bill fails to protect US taxpayers’ interests in four ways.

Words: Steve Ellis
Pictures: US Department of Defense

The US House Appropriations Committee recently passed its defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2024. Sponsored by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the measure provides $826.45 billion in new discretionary spending for the upcoming fiscal year, which he touts as being $285.87 million more than the president’s budget request. Of course, more doesn’t necessarily equal better.

As a longtime taxpayer watchdog, I have spent much of my career arguing that Congress should pass separate appropriations bills for each subcommittee rather than rolling everything into a rushed, must-pass omnibus bill that typically leads to the inclusion of costly and unrequested spending provisions that could not survive the scrutiny of committee hearings or floor votes. This has been all too common in recent years, so it is salutary to have a defense passed by the committee in mid-June.

However, we must not confuse this appropriation bill’s timeliness with effectiveness, because a number of this bill’s provisions fail to protect Americans against 21st-century challenges in the critical arenas of national security and sound fiscal policy. In particular, the subcommittee’s fiscal year 2024’s defense appropriations bill prevents the US Navy from modernizing its naval warfare capabilities by forcing it to maintain ships of dubious military value while forcing the Department of Defense to spend vast sums on legacy fighter aircraft programs plagued with cost overruns and operational deficiencies. 

Even as House appropriators anchor Cold War-era defense procurements that fail to protect Americans from proliferating threats in today’s multipolar nuclear environment, they are also preventing the Department of Defense from taking prudent, cost-effective action to combat climate change — a pressing challenge that threatens our economic and national security alike. In fact, they take pride in cutting funding from Pentagon proposals to mitigate the impacts on their facilities.

Failing to Protect Taxpayers’ Best Interests 

There are four areas in which the new defense appropriations bill fails US taxpayers. The first has to do with the maintenance of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The LCS is a surface vessel envisioned to be “a networked, agile, stealthy surface combatant capable of defeating anti-access and asymmetric threats in the littorals,” which has faced significant operational challenges, delays, and deficiencies. The LCS has not met operational standards, could hardly be called a “combatant,” and suffers issues related to the ship’s self-defense capabilities and failure rates of essential equipment, as documented by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

We must not confuse this appropriation bill’s timeliness with effectiveness, because a number of this bill’s provisions fail to protect Americans against 21st-century challenges in the critical arenas of national security and sound fiscal policy.

While the US Navy has been directed to take steps to address some of these issues, there is no comprehensive plan to tackle the identified deficiencies, and the navy’s request this year to decommission two LCS vessels was denied by the House appropriators. The navy is now focused on reorganizing its fleet and is procuring more capable warships. The remaining 31 LCSs may find limited roles such as peacetime patrols or training exercises with allied navies, but their future utility remains uncertain.

The second is related to the unaffordable F-35s. Since its inception in 2001, the F-35 strike fighter program has faced numerous revisions to cost and schedule goals, with estimates ballooning to an astonishing $416.2 billion for acquisition alone. When factoring in the costs of operating and sustaining the fleet over its planned lifespan, the total bill reaches an astronomical $1.7 trillion. Development delays have plagued the program, hampering the completion of operational testing and delaying the full-rate production decision. GAO has questioned the F-35 program’s acquisitions strategy, which has led to persistent cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortcomings. Despite this information, the recent appropriations bill leans into the troubled program allocating $9.6 billion for 86 F-35 aircraft, three more than the Pentagon requested, adding $227.4 million to the total.

The third has to do with Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation or RDT&E. The Committee continued the recent practice of littering the RDT&E section with hundreds of what appear to be parochial earmark-esque adds, like $35 million for “commercially available large diameter unmanned undersea vehicle technology” or $9.5 million for a “hypersonic unmanned wingman” or $150 million for the Adaptive Engine Transition Program, a rehash of the F-35 Alternate Engine fighter that was thought to be resolved a decade ago. The total RDT&E spending grew by nearly $2 billion, but under further scrutiny, the total cost of the adds will likely be much higher since some of the requested funding was cut and re-purposed for these hangers-on.

And the final area is that of climate change. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his predecessors have characterized climate change as a threat to our national security and even as a “threat multiplier,” citing both the operational damage and disruption of intensifying natural disasters as well as the widespread instability and conflict these events create. Alarmingly, not only do House appropriators ignore the climate threat, but they actively work to prevent the Pentagon from taking steps to address this increasingly tangible and costly danger to our national security. They proudly tout cutting $715 million from Pentagon efforts to address the risk at their facilities. This is an unconscionable policy decision on economic and national security grounds alike. 

But they didn’t stop at cutting funding, they are also blocking administrative action. To help mitigate the climate threat while creating economic benefits for US business sectors, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council proposes to require that government suppliers measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions and develop goals to reduce them. Importantly, it also proposes to use this new information as a factor in procurement decisions.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation directs purchasing for the General Services Administration, NASA, and the Pentagon. Thanks to the Pentagon’s huge impact on the federal contracting community, even small shifts in procurement rules designed to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ripple through the economy and help fend off the dangers posed by climate change.

Sound federal budgeting for weapons programs and adequate preparation against the dangers of climate change are critical components of fortifying US national security in the 21st century. As fiscal year 2024 national defense appropriations legislation makes its way through the US House and Senate this year, lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure strong national security while also promoting fiscal responsibility. The challenges and threats that our military faces require policy based on sound defense strategy, not politics and parochial interests that are far too prevalent in the House’s defense appropriations bill.

Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog that has served as an independent voice for the American taxpayer since 1995. It works to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that government operates within its means and can be found on Twitter here.

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