SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Top military officials, industry leaders, and experts all gathered here for the Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday to discuss the big defense issues facing the United States, but most conversations kept swerving to budget woes on Capitol Hill.
Amid North Korean missile tests and Russian aggression, attendee after attendee lamented federal budget caps passed by Congress that have held down defense spending since 2013 and are now threatening the Trump administration’s effort to rebuild the military.
Word also came during the forum — as if on cue — that Congress is poised to pass another in a long line of stopgap budget measures before funding expires on Dec. 8 as lawmakers wrangle over the defense spending and the Budget Control Act caps.
“Operating without a budget is not normal. Doing so every year for nine years is really not normal,” Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said.
Shanahan, a first-time forum attendee, closed out the forum by focusing on the issue.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader, said Saturday that it will be a two-week continuing resolution, or CR, to buy more time for negotiations aimed at raising a $549 billion cap on base defense spending for 2018.
The goal is a two-year deal to raise the defense caps, McCarthy said, but it remained unclear whether Republicans and Democrats can strike an agreement and whether two weeks will be enough time.
Lawmakers have passed two earlier deals to amend the Budget Control Act caps since the law was passed in 2011 and first cut spending in 2013. The law has thrown the defense budget process out of whack, reduced spending, and resulted in years of CRs for the Pentagon.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the Armed Services Committee chairman, said lawmakers were set to make a critical decision in the coming days. He has warned about degraded military forces and spearheaded the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act that cannot be fully funded without a budget deal.
“My personal view is we are going to turn it around now or we are going to live in a very different country and a very different world,” Thornberry said.
The effort at another deal in Congress did not seem to raise many hopes at the Reagan forum.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said he has often been asked how much funding he wants for the service.
“My view is, hey, what I really want is I want a budget,” Neller said. “I’d like a two-year budget, I’d really like a four-year budget, I just want to know what the number is so we can figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to move.”
Budget woes have been blamed for slipping military readiness and a string of recent deadly aviation and naval mishaps, but it has also been hard on the defense industry.
“As we looks at the industry today, it is probably more fragile and less flexible than I’ve seen it … and the reason is because of the budget cuts,” Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of defense giant Lockheed Martin, said during the forum.
Hewson said about 20 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses have left the industry since the budget instability began.
Lockheed, which is the largest defense contractor, has reduced its employees from 126,000 to 97,000, dramatically shrunk its footprint, and now has only one or two suppliers for some critical needs when it used to have many, she said.
“We stand ready to support the men and women in uniform … we just need not to get mixed signals,” said Hewson, referring to the military’s desire for new equipment but uncertainty with future funding from Congress.