Senators Concerned Army’s “Night Court” Process Limits Oversight; Add Program Review Requirements

Senators Concerned Army’s “Night Court” Process Limits Oversight; Add Program Review Requirements

The Army’s “night court” process to cut $25 billion in outdated weapons programs over the next five years and reinvest in modernization brought praise from DOD but Congress isn’t entirely comfortable with the process, Federal News Network (FNN) reports.

The Senate version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) notes the night court process and explains the upper chamber understands “the disconnects between budget cycles and strategy changes,” but lawmakers are concerned about $10 billion the Army is targeting for realignment in FY 2021, according to the report.

The Army has highlighted the night court program as good governance and plans to repeat it in FY 2020. In late 2018 and early 2019 senior Army officials, including then Army Secretary Mark Esper, reviewed every program for its fit with current defense strategy or its removal.

The process also led to the Air Force reviewing its programs, and DOD is currently implementing the process to review “Fourth Estate” programs, as On Base previously reported.

“Night Court, as the Army staff coined it two years ago — and they obviously have a sense of humor during tough times — we’re going to continue that,” then-acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said last month, according to the FNN report.

“And that’s the reform efforts that then-Army Secretary Mark Esper and former Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley put us on. It’s going primetime now in DOD. And we’re going to keep doing that for years to come,” McCarthy reportedly added.

While the process has shown success, Congress, however, is frustrated its influence is limited, according to FNN.

“Continued, wide-ranging truncation or elimination of programs without notification to the congressional defense committees in advance of the subsequent budget submission leads to inefficiencies and misappropriation of resources,” the Senate FY 2020 NDAA states.

Lawmakers are reclaiming their authority and seek more notice when the Army redirects its programming, the FNN report says.

“Instead of a crisp change, the Army is working on a rolling budget process with night court,” Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FNN. “It’s a regular process issue. Congress wants to understand budget decisions and have a back-and-forth with the services.”

Currently, the Army’s night court is a more improvised process where in the fall DOD usually submits its two-year plan to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), meaning DOD has already finalized its FY 2021 plans, according to the report.

The Army reviewed its FY 2020 programs as recently as this summer and made cuts, and will continue to seek more, then will notify Congress it seeks to reprogram the funds, the report said.

Cancian says the process makes lawmakers wary because they are unable to analyze where the Army seeks to direct funds and their original source, the report said. Congressional vetting matters because it’s Congress’ oversight responsibility how funds are spent and to guard against waste.

In response, Senate appropriations lawmakers want the defense secretary and Army secretary to document with their FY 2021 budget requests all program truncations and eliminations. They also seek the FY 2020 program changes along with a plan justifying unspent funds to be used for FY 2021 programs, according to the report.

However, Cancian says in the Army’s defense, the service is a massive organization and with changing priorities from the Middle East conflict to near-peer competition, it needs to cut legacy systems and reinvest faster than the budget cycle.

ADC photo by Will Noonan

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