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Budget Fight At The OCO Corral

Posted by Justin Johnson on


Should war funds be used to help the military patch gaps in its regular budget? It sounds like a technical issue, but the ongoing debate has turned into a battle royale, with a new scuffle breaking out just last week. It’s a slugfest featuring bad ideas, even worse ideas and a healthy dose of hypocrisy, too. Let’s sort this out…

It began this spring when Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, decided to employ a budget gimmick to help increase the defense budget.

The ploy involved funding only part of the total year’s military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, which are paid for through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The partial funding freed up to $18 billion for other legitimate defense needs like increasing maintenance and training, and growing and modernizing the military.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter slammed the move, saying things like, “it’s gambling with warfighting funds” and that using OCO in this manner “undercuts stable planning and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

The latest twist, however, is that the Pentagon now confirms that roughly $30 billion of its OCO request is for “enduring requirements.” In other words, the Pentagon is using the OCO account to pay for normal budget needs like training and regular operations, while publicly blasting Republicans in Congress for proposing to do exactly the same. Even by Washington standards, this hypocrisy is pretty rich.

But at the end of the day, what really matters in this fight? Here are my takeaways:

The defense budget is simply too low. Even at reduced readiness levels and a historically small force, the Pentagon can’t stretch the defense budget to meet its basic operating needs without syphoning an additional $30 billion from the OCO account. The Budget Control Act’s spending caps now limit the normal defense spending (known as the “base budget”) so severely that both the Pentagon and Congress are trying to tap OCO to ease the pain.

Pentagon leaders talk about next year’s $35 billion gap between the current budget plan and the budget caps in law. But the Pentagon’s plan to raid OCO reveals that they perceive the real gap to be roughly $65 billion. And even that number doesn’t pay for truly rebuilding the military our country needs. Congress and the American people deserve to have this gap laid out in the open, not hidden away.

The Pentagon’s use of OCO for normal operating needs is not surprising. Defense budget analysts have long questioned what, exactly, was being funded through the OCO accounts, and called for moving OCO into the normal budget. Even in the DoD’s own budget documents, there are hints that regular operations, particularly items like Air Force flying hours and Navy steaming days, are being funded in part through OCO. This reinforces the fact that the defense budget is too low to support the missions our country is asking our military to achieve. It also highlights the hypocrisy of Pentagon attacks on Congress for attempting to employ the same tactic.

Pentagon attacks on the House budget gimmick are highly hypocritical. Political leaders in the Pentagon want to use OCO funds for their own non-war operations, but have gone into full attack-dog mode when House Republicans proposed doing the same. Pentagon leaders even wrote a now infamous memo outlining how they would play “hardball” by going after specific members of Congress and seeking to increase the partisan divide on the budget debate.

Yes, the idea of troops in the fight running out of money part way through next year is not acceptable. No one believes that the White House and Congress will let that happen. The real reason for the Pentagon’s opposition is that the fight is not about the defense budget. The fight is about the White House’s rule that defense spending can’t be increased without non-defense spending increases. In short, Pentagon leaders are attacking Congress to help increase non-defense spending. This is not just hypocritical; it’s ludicrous.

At the end of the day, what America needs–and what the men and women in uniform deserve–is a defense budget that supports a strong military in a fiscally responsible manner. The defense budget should be considered on its own merits, not be linked to other agendas. The necessary funding should be added, openly, to the base budget, so that we can begin rebuilding the U.S. military after 15 years of war.

Justin T. Johnson, a former Republican military legislative aide, is the Heritage Foundation’s senior policy analyst for defense budgeting.

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