An airman uses a computer to review Electronic Technical Data used to track onboard tasks by the crew of a JSTARS surveillance plane behind him on the tarmac at Warner Robins Air Force Base in this photo from March 2003. Congress and the Pentagon have big plans in the years ahead for replacing this aging but popular fleet of 16 planes, which are based exclusively at Robins and have been in use by the Air Force for roughly 25 years. But it would have to get through a congressional budget process snarled in partisan politics. (Kimberly Smith/AJC staff)

Budget gridlock on Capitol Hill could harm Georgia’s military interests

But these planes are no longer the passenger aircraft they were in their commercial heyday. Souped up with radar capability, the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, helps military commanders more quickly and accurately spot their ground targets in conflict zones.

Congress and the Pentagon have big plans in the years ahead for replacing this aging but popular fleet of 16 planes, which are based exclusively at Robins and have been in use by the Air Force for roughly 25 years. However, a plan to dramatically accelerate funding for developing the next generation of JSTARS in the upcoming budget year is likely to languish — at least temporarily — under the stopgap funding plan lawmakers must pass later this month. It is just one of the defense projects in Georgia hamstrung by Washington’s broken budget process.

Georgia has one of the country’s largest military footprints. Gov. Nathan Deal’s office estimated that the state’s three Army, two Air Force, one Marine and one Navy base collectively generated $20 billion in economic impact in 2012.

But under a stopgap’s funding-on-autopilot regime, especially one that lasts longer than a few months, observers say critical new projects are delayed, potentially leading to a gap in what commanders need to fight for American interests abroad and what’s available. And in Georgia, each project and contract on hold means fewer jobs and less money flowing into the local economy.

High-stakes games

Deep polarization in Congress has made it virtually impossible for lawmakers to do much of their work. That’s put a lot of pressure on the few bills members of Congress must pass every year: government spending measures.

In order to get what they want on issues as varied as Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and Pentagon money, lawmakers in recent years have used the financing of the entire government, including the Pentagon, as a bargaining chip.

Those high-stakes tactics have consequences as Congress is forced to pass stopgaps, or continuing resolutions, to avoid the worst-case scenario — a government shutdown.

So after months of bickering over the budget deal negotiated by then-Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama, Congress once again finds itself in the position of needing to pass a continuing resolution by Sept. 30 in order to avoid a shutdown.

This year’s stopgap will have an impact on every corner of the government, from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Census Bureau. Georgia’s defense installations are no exception, and the longer the stopgap the bigger the impact.

For JSTARS, a continuing resolution means that funding to develop next-generation airplanes would be stuck at roughly one-third of the amount lawmakers wanted to give for the new year until a final agreement is passed.

The Air Force’s plan to give computer upgrades to two of the currently operational JSTARS planes could also be delayed.

Elsewhere in Georgia, long-term funding Band-Aids could delay $100 million in upgrades to global positioning system and radar warning receivers that the House wants to give to the A-10C “Warthog” Thunderbolts flown out of Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta.

It could also lead to a reduction in flying hours and maintenance for the Warthog, as well as the Hercules C-130 transport aircraft flown out of the Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta.

The impact of a long-term stopgap could also be very much felt at Fort Gordon near Augusta, which the Army is transforming into its cybercommand headquarters. The base is in line for a big funding increase this year, but under a stopgap that money would be temporarily put on hold, slowing work as the Army looks to get the facility fully operational.

A change of course?

At the end of the day, Congress has always found a way to eventually fund the Pentagon with full budget blueprints, even if it’s months late. And the Defense Department has tricks it sometimes uses to help manage until lawmakers come to a final agreement.

However, the big fear is that election-year brinksmanship creates an unbridgeable divide. Supporters say the Defense Department needs as much flexibility as possible to face a rapidly changing global stage.

“Each year our priorities as a country when it comes to defense change,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, a member of the House subcommittee that funds the Pentagon. “And so a continuing resolution, while it provides funding, it might not prescribe where that funding needs to go for the future or where we would want it to go.”

The stopgap strategy that’s emerging in the Senate would fund the government for 10 weeks. Whether Congress will ultimately pass a full funding plan after the election or resort to a longer-term stopgap that people say is so dangerous is unclear.

In the meantime, the partisan finger-pointing continues and both sides are refusing to take responsibility for the budgetary stalemate.

“I’m outraged that we’re in this position because of the gridlock up there, frankly because the Democrats are not allowing some of these appropriations bills to get to the floor of the Senate,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

“It really boils down to the way that the Republicans have run government since they’ve been in control of the legislative branch,” said Lithonia Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They’ve put themselves, along with the American people, into a pickle, and the only way to get out of it is to increase revenues.”

There are some efforts on Capitol Hill to rewrite the rules so that Congress won’t rely on so many continuing resolutions, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers can come up with solutions that both have teeth and are acceptable to both parties.

Roswell Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Price, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is leading efforts in his chamber to overhaul the congressional budget process. His panel has released a series of papers exploring what could be done and has discussed putting pen to paper in the months ahead.

Perdue is involved in an effort in the Senate. The Republican has advocated for an approach that makes Congress’ annual budget a binding document instead of essentially an optional one. He’s also looking to find a way to compel lawmakers to act every year.

“I understand the cynicism,” Perdue said, “but that’s not a license to not do anything.”

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