Marcari Russotto Spencer Balaban, Donald Marcari, MRSB Law Firm
Budget, Military

Budget Battles Threaten Military Quality-of-Life Improvements!

Lawmakers have pledged that in 2024, there will be a significant focus on improving the quality of life for Veterans, addressing persistent issues with deteriorating and unhealthy barracks.

However, the efforts to replace run-down housing and enhance the well-being of service members may face significant challenges due to political disputes over the federal budget.

The new year begins with unresolved battles over spending levels for the fiscal year, which commenced in October.

Lawmakers, currently on holiday break until next week, are now confronted with two impending deadlines to reach a spending agreement to avoid government agency shutdowns.

The first deadline, covering funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction, looms on January 19.

The subsequent deadline, encompassing the remainder of the Pentagon’s budget, falls on February 2.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has vowed not to endorse any more short-term spending measures after the February 2 deadline.

This raises the possibility of resorting to a full-year continuing resolution (CR) if no agreement on regular spending bills can be reached.

Continuing resolutions entail maintaining the previous year’s funding levels without modifications, preventing the initiation of any new programs.

The military has never operated under a full-year CR, and officials have previously cautioned that such a situation could have severe consequences.

Complicating matters in the discussion of a full-year CR this time is an agreement reached last year to prevent a government default, which mandates a 1% across-the-board spending reduction for all federal agencies if a regular spending plan isn’t enacted by the end of April.

Military officials have expressed concerns that a full-year CR, coupled with a 1% cut, would severely hinder efforts to enhance the quality of life for service members.

This includes plans to address and replace barracks that have garnered attention in recent months due to deplorable conditions, including mold, pest infestations, and sewage issues.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, emphasized the impact of a full-year CR on military construction projects. 

Under such circumstances, the Army would be forced to delay the initiation of 35 projects, including five barracks and four family housing initiatives, just as efforts were underway to improve aging barracks.

The specifics of which barracks projects would be affected were not detailed in the letter.

Any delays could impede the Army’s multi-billion-dollar investment in repairing and replacing housing, especially in light of media reports and government watchdog findings highlighting substandard living conditions across the military.

The political impasse in Congress is jeopardizing barracks and other quality-of-life endeavors at a time when lawmakers have vowed to prioritize the living conditions of service members and potentially implement far-reaching reforms.

The House Armed Services Committee’s quality-of-life panel intends to formulate recommendations early this year, which could be integrated into the annual defense policy bill scheduled for debate later in 2024.

One of the primary areas expected to be addressed by the quality-of-life panel is housing conditions, especially in the wake of reports on dilapidated barracks.

Any reforms resulting from these efforts would likely be slated for fiscal year 2025 at the earliest.

However, if a yearlong CR defers planned repairs this year, the panel may face a more challenging situation next year.

Wormuth’s letter, highlighting the repercussions on barracks, was part of a series of letters from service secretaries, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown, which were requested and made public last month by Senate appropriators.

Brown’s letter similarly raised concerns about delays in military construction.

In the Air Force and Space Force, a total of 34 military construction projects, including some related to quality-of-life facilities, would face delays, as outlined by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

In the Navy and Marine Corps, “quality-of-service initiatives to improve living conditions and expand resources for mental health will be hindered,” warned Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

While a full-year CR would technically leave the military with more construction funding than initially planned for the year, it would render that funding “essentially unusable,” as noted by Austin in his letter.

Throughout the military, 21 quality-of-life facilities valued at $1.5 billion would be affected, including new barracks at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Washington state and a new ambulatory care and dental clinic at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, as highlighted in Austin’s letter.

He stressed that a year-long CR “would misalign billions of dollars, subject service members and their families to unnecessary stress, damage our readiness, and impede our ability to react to emergent events.”

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