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Senate panel backs special $1 billion military ‘readiness’ fund

Some experts are skeptical that the Defense Department will spend the funds effectively.

The new military readiness fund in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense spending bill would come with very few strings or stipulations attached. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images file photo)
The new military readiness fund in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense spending bill would come with very few strings or stipulations attached. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images file photo)

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s new Defense spending bill would create a $1.1 billion fund for yet-to-be-determined programs that build military “readiness,” a word that has come to mean just about anything in the Pentagon budget.

The fund, created at a time when military preparedness levels are on the rise after nearly two decades at war, would come with very few strings or stipulations, an unusual move for appropriators who typically guard their power of the purse.

The Pentagon must proportionately divide this money among the military’s active and reservist components’ operations accounts. And Defense Department officials would have to notify Congress about how they’ll spend the money no less than 30 days before they do so. The money could then be spent as planned unless an appropriator objects. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the nearly $695 billion draft Defense bill on Thursday in a party-line vote. 

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Committee leaders did not speak at the markup about the new fund, nor did they note it in their press statements announcing the bill’s details. The fund’s existence is mentioned in the report that accompanies the bill.  

“This funding shall be used only to improve military readiness, including increased training, depot maintenance, and base operations support,” the committee’s new report said. “None of the funding provided may be used for recruiting, marketing, or advertising programs.”

Some experts are skeptical that the Defense Department will spend the funds effectively.

“Congress believes there is a readiness problem but doesn’t know where more resources are needed or would be most effectively applied. So it is effectively punting to DOD to figure that out on the fly next year,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “DOD will surely be able to spend the additional $1.1 billion, but I don’t have a lot of confidence it will be able to show a marked improvement in readiness as a result.”

Rare move

The funding is added to the overseas contingency operations portion of the bill, a category of spending that is not limited by the budget caps. 

Creating the new account would be an uncommon step for Congress, and not just because of the amount of money involved.

Appropriators are generally reluctant to allocate funds without specifying how they should be spent, though they have made a number of exceptions.

Congress, for instance, created the National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account to help the historically underfunded reserve forces buy urgently needed gear. That account would get $850 million in the Senate’s new bill.

Another example is the Defense Rapid Innovation Fund, which Congress set up in 2010 as a way to effectively outsource earmarking to the Pentagon after Congress cracked down on the special-interest spending. For fiscal 2020, the Senate bill supports the Pentagon’s $14 million request for that fund, which has netted more than $2 billion since its creation.

“A readiness fund is unusual but not unprecedented,” said Mark Cancian, who oversaw national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget for most of the Obama administration. “Congress often uses transfer funds in situations where it wants to focus attention but does not have enough information to specify the exact budget line.”

Meaning of ‘readiness’

Readiness has seen its meaning blurred from overuse. Traditionally, the word has referred to specific measures of unit preparedness that account for the number of trained personnel and working equipment. More recently, a readiness related program has come to encompass almost any kind of spending that makes the military stronger, including next-generation weaponry. 

The timing of the readiness-fund proposal is also somewhat odd. The military’s readiness levels took a hit about a decade ago due primarily to the wear on people and equipment of long-running wars and to budget caps.  In recent years, however, military preparedness is reportedly in better shape.

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said at a hearing in July that the portion of the Army’s brigades that were at the highest level of readiness increased from 5 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019. 

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in May that higher defense budgets since 2017 “have allowed us to build readiness,” but the process is not complete, he added.

“We can’t reverse decades of erosion in just a few years and this committee knows that as well as any,” Dunford said.

Cancian, the former White House budget official who like Harrison is now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he finds the timing surprising because the Pentagon “has spent the last few years fixing readiness and has moved budget emphasis to modernization. Apparently Congress thought DOD had not gone far enough.”

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