Editorial | Budgetary Chaos in Washington

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With Congress and the White House having been so preoccupied over the past year failing to defuse the budgetary time bomb known as sequestration — while simultaneously working diligently to convince the American public of their worthiness for re-election — it’s easy to see how they lost track of supposedly routine matters. Such as funding federal activities for the current fiscal year, and preparing a budget request for the next one.

Yet the annual appropriations process, apparently relegated to back-seat status on Capitol Hill, remains important: Just ask those tasked with that most fundamental of government responsibilities, national security, who have begun openly pleading with their political masters for a restoration of some sense of order and functionality. They include the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and, more recently, Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, who said the current budgetary uncertainty is making it difficult if not impossible to plan for capabilities that just about everyone agrees are essential to defending the nation and its allies.

Most of the focus in recent months has been on sequestration, which for the Pentagon means a spending cut of more than $500 billion over the next decade that would be made with a dull-bladed ax, as opposed to a scalpel. These cuts were supposed to kick in Jan. 1 barring agreement between the White House and Congress on a more rational deficit-reduction strategy, but the two sides have given themselves an additional two months to posture.

Meanwhile, another deadline that was largely overshadowed by the sequestration threat is looming: The six-month continuing resolution (CR) currently funding all U.S. government activities at 2012 levels — owing to Congress’ failure to pass any appropriations bills last year — is set to expire at the end of March. Should Congress fail to pass new spending bills before then, a possibility that grows with each passing day, the CR would have to be extended, perhaps for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The upshot of all this is there is no way to know right now what funding levels to expect for government programs.

“There are pressures that are on all of us now to try to make decisions without good information — and it is the national security of the nation we’re talking about,” Gen. Shelton said of the twin threats of sequestration and a full-year CR.

The only thing anyone knows for certain is any type of funding will be more difficult to come by in future years than in the past.

Particularly vulnerable during times like these are the infrastructure upgrades that often get deferred even in more favorable fiscal environments. One that immediately comes to mind — Gen. Shelton singled it out as a priority that needs protecting — is modernization of the Pentagon’s Joint Space Operations Center, whose increasingly demanding space-surveillance and space traffic management missions have grown too complex for its antiquated data processing systems. Another is the Launch and Test Range Integrated Support Contract, an efficiency initiative that aims to consolidate three separate contracts encompassing launch-range modernization and support activities.

Military space programs aren’t the only ones at risk. The civilian Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R weather satellite development program was slated for a 30 percent budget increase in 2013 and barring a congressionally approved reprogramming of funds likely would be delayed under a full-year CR, which would drive up its cost.

Also targeted for a big funding boost this year is NASA’s effort to develop commercial crew taxis, without which the agency must continue to rely exclusively on Russia for astronaut transport to and from the international space station. Sequestration, meanwhile, would result in an immediate 8.2 percent cut to the top-line budget for NASA, which already is being asked to do too much with too little.

Congress appears on track to pass short-term legislation giving the White House authority to raise the federal debt ceiling, removing a potential obstacle to the deficit reduction deal needed to avert sequestration. But given that the two sides have made zero progress toward such a deal in more than a year, there’s little reason to think they can close one in a month. Unless Congress and the White House are willing to admit that they cannot negotiate a mutually acceptable debt reduction strategy — never mind the future consequences — and take sequestration off the table, the most likely scenario is that the sequestration can gets kicked down the road yet again.

When it comes to the 2013 budget, however, Congress is running out of road; the fiscal year is already one-third over. The consequences of failing to act soon are difficult to predict, but surely will hit hardest several years from now, when capabilities that government agencies currently anticipate they’ll need aren’t there. Gen. Shelton said today’s circumstances are the worst he’s ever seen in 36-plus years of service. Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come.