The old quip about limitations refers to cramming 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound sack. Congressional lawmakers must be wishing for something that easy as they get ready to return to work Sept. 5.
When the House and Senate return after Labor Day they will have a combined 17 working days to fund the government for next year. This necessarily includes convincing an unpredictable president to sign the spending bill despite his threat to veto it if it does not include money for a wall along the Mexican border. All this is taking place amidst threats from North Korea, an urgent need to raise the debt ceiling in October and the ballooning need for federal assistance for Texas and the Gulf Coast.
Fortunately, the GPS program appears relatively insulated from the drama.
The House currently has 12 just working days scheduled while the Senate has 17 before the end of the fiscal year. Experts agree that, given the time constraints, Congress is highly likely to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government. This type of bill, also called a CR, usually continues funding at the current levels. They can be short term, to buy a little negotiating time, or cover the entire year.
CRs, however, come with special constraints including a sometimes problematic prohibition against starting new programs. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any GPS programs at risk under such a limitation. Each one of the major initiatives —GPS III modernization, the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) and the development of Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) — have all had funding in prior years. That’s the key to whether it’s a new start or not, said Mike Tierney, a senior consultant with Jacques and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in defense, space/intelligence, homeland security and related industries.
“The Air Force and the Department (of Defense) will have a very clear argument that says that anything that they’re doing on GPS, whether it’s the evolution of the architecture, OCX, whatever, is not going to be a ‘new start,’ ” Tierney said.
In addition, Congress has been clear about its strong support for the GPS program, he pointed out, even when projects, like OCX, have run into serious problems.
“On something like GPS, you’re talking about one of the bedrock programs of the military space enterprise,” Tierney told Inside GNSS. “And the health and development of that architecture has been a priority of Congress for decades. So, I don’t anticipate a scenario where a CR, or the perturbations relative thereto, impact the program significantly. I would be shocked if Congress allows themselves to get in the way of the progress of the GPS program.”
That doesn’t mean that the next four weeks will be trouble free.
Should President Trump veto the continuing resolution — which he has threatened to do if Congress fails to fund the wall he promised to build along the border with Mexico — the government will shut down.
“It’s entirely possible, that the president says ‘I asked for money for the wall. If you don’t give it to me I’m going to veto this bill,’ ” said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and an executive vice president with the Qorvis MSLGROUP.
If there is a shutdown it would slow the GPS program itself as well as ongoing efforts to set requirements for a GPS backup system. Work on the Department of Transportation’s Adjacent Band Compatibility Assessment, now under review, could also be affected.
And it’s not just the project hours that are lost. Experience with previous shutdowns has shown there is a good deal of time spent planning for a shutdown and followed by inefficiencies resulting from trying to make up for lost days.
Other navigation and timing programs such as eLoran could face difficulties of a more indirect nature. A public private partnership has been proposed to fund an eLoran backup for GPS with the government buying its services from the company.
The problem, said Tierney, isn’t so much about the money as it is about uncertainty and the inclination to delay action on this more creative approach.
“Something like this (a shutdown) would throw a wrench into progress on leveraging innovative new kind of commercial techniques and service level agreements,” said Tierney. “…It will give an institution that is looking to find ‘No’ another reason to find ‘No.’ ”
What Are the Chances?
Tierney, however, thinks worries over a government shutdown are overblown. “It would be really bad for the Republicans in charge of the government if the government shut down. So, I don’t see that happening,” he said.
Goldman Sachs had the probability of a shutdown at 50 percent a few weeks ago but dropped that to just 35 percent after President Trump visited Texas, given the political risk to the White House if it held up support for Texas flood relief work.
“If the funding bill includes money for Hurricane Harvey recovery that makes it a little bit more difficult for the president to veto it,” agreed Collender. He suggested Congress might try to appease the president by putting in money to rebuild things like storm-damaged border crossings. “That might be considered one for the wall or something that might placate the president.”
The outcome, however, is far from clear, said Collender. “I was just talking to somebody who’s an even more experienced budget person than I am and we can’t figure out where the president’s coming from on this.”
“What used to be the unimaginable is now becoming merely implausible or unlikely,” he said. “Hurricane Harvey funding complicates it a bit but I think it’s entirely possible the president says to Congress: ‘If the CR doesn’t include money for my wall I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue and shut down the government.’ “