Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen prepares to testify Wednesday in front of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. To his left are Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale. (Photo by Peter Larson/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — The military descended on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning, touting national security as grounds to stress the demand for passing long-awaited 2011 spending legislation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates joined Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale to testify before the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, the latest in a string of department heads pleading with Congress on behalf of their budgets.

While deliberations started Wednesday on President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget request, Defense officials came out pressing Congress to finish work on 2011 first.

“I want to start by making it clear that the Department of Defense will face a crisis if we end up with a year-long continuing resolution or a significant funding cut for FY2011,” Gates said.

Mullen said that the inefficiencies would become exponential over time if the department were forced to continue working within the confines of a continuing resolution. Not only will it be unable to start new programs, the secretary will have limited time and flexibility to make purchases from contractors.

Some committee members expressed skepticism though regarding past Defense programs, the results of which were never seen because they were shut down in infancy.

Halfway into the current fiscal year without a spending bill, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said Tuesday that failure to pass this year’s budget is “a crisis at our doorstep” that “will damage national security.”

Lawmakers shot back Wednesday with the same argument. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said unchecked U.S. borrowing could pose risks to national sovereignty in the future.

Rogers said he recognized the Defense Department’s work, but confessed: “We’re broke.”

The House passed a stopgap measure late Tuesday to keep funds flowing to the federal government for another two weeks, averting a government shutdown—at least until lawmakers can compromise on proposed spending cuts.

Despite the air of fiscal austerity, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., began the hearing by saying the committee would not do anything that could put U.S. warfighters at risk. He pledged to try and wrap up work for this fiscal year and start planning the 2012 Defense Appropriations Bill as soon as possible.

Earlier Tuesday, the Pentagon bemoaned the use of continuing resolutions, saying it is losing billions of dollars stuck operating at 2010 appropriations levels because Congress has yet to pass an appropriations bill now five months into this fiscal year.

That delay has put readiness, modernization and efficiency initiatives at risk, Lynn told members of a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

“In a time of war, with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the front lines, this is no time to do a continuing resolution,” he said.

Gates seconded his statement. He said long-term security concerns should not be compromised in the face of short-term budget cuts.

“We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our peril,” Gates said. “Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later—indeed as they always have in the past.”

The department requested $549 billion for its fiscal 2011 budget. $23 billion is at stake if it has to support operations under a continuing resolution for the rest of the fiscal year, he said.

The House passed the first version of a spending bill last week, approving $532 billion in defense appropriations—still a cut of $17 billion on the department’s requests halfway through the fiscal year.

Reductions will likely fall hardest on operations and maintenance accounts, Gates said, causing a weakening of the military in the middle of wartime.

“Cuts in operations would mean fewer flying hours, fewer steaming days, and cutbacks in training for home-stationed forces—all of which directly impacts readiness,” Gates said in a prepared statement. “That is how you hollow out a military—when your best people, your veterans of multiple combat deployments, become frustrated and demoralized and, as a result, begin leaving military service.”

In addition, without congressional appropriation there will be no new military construction this fiscal year, Gates said. The resulting setback would confirm Mullen’s claim about the exponential buildup of inefficiencies, he said.

In place of a year-long resolution, officials have requested that the regular, full fiscal 2011 Defense Appropriations Bill be attached to any new continuing resolution—a move that has proven successful in the past.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., have also urged the Senate to bring the House-approved appropriations bill to the floor for a vote immediately.

“We have been holding our breath so long we are starting to turn blue,” Hale said alongside Lynn Tuesday. “We really need help.”