WASHINGTON — Army Secretary Mark Esper said he’d like a year to spend the yet-to-be-passed fiscal 2018 operations and maintenance dollars once Congress passes the budget rather than cramming FY18 spending into the last few months of the fiscal year.
Under current rules, the Defense Department is required to spend operations and maintenance account funding by the end of the year or lose it. Congress also requires that no more than 20 percent of one-year appropriations may be obligated during the last two months of the fiscal year.
Congress is optimistic that it will pass an omnibus spending bill for FY18 before the latest continuing resolution — which sets the budget temporarily at FY17 levels — expires March 23. The Defense Department could have five months or less to spend the large amount of funding afforded by the deal on budget top lines, which provides national defense nearly $700 billion for FY18 and $716 billion for FY19.
“My preference in a perfect world,” Esper told reporters, following a March 12 Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, “I would prefer to have a year to spend those dollars, so if it means a day-for-day, for every day lost, a day gained or whatever, but again… you have to have a process which can be audited, you have to have sufficient oversight. There are things you have to do.”
Esper added “there are a lot of smart people in Congress that can figure this out. I think the will is there, the willingness is there to make it happen.”
Lawmakers have shown recent agreement that Congress should stretch 2018 appropriations for the Pentagon in some way to compensate for the appropriations likely to come halfway into the fiscal year.
A bipartisan group of senators with authority over military readiness urged Senate appropriators in a recent letter to waive the one-year limitation for operations and maintenance accounts and the so-called “80/20 Rule” that requires the Pentagon spend no more than 20 percent during the last two months of the year.
The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee also proposed something similar.
But regardless of whether flexible spending mechanisms are granted, Congress will likely still see a record number of DoD requests to reprogram funding, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said recently.
Esper said he believed the Pentagon has proposed some solutions to Congress for flexible spending and added he’s had discussions on the Hill, as well as his colleagues, in order to ensure lawmakers understand the problem.
“They all have expressed an eagerness to do something, they understand the problems we face, so they are sympathetic to it,” he said.
And while a solution for how the Pentagon should spend its FY18 funding is needed now, Esper added, “if you could figure out a process that does it for multiple years, that would be great because then we don’t have to come back every year. I mean, at this point, we have started the fiscal year late now, at least three months late, for how many years? Six? Seven? Eight?”