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Dems Lash Out At Trump ‘Fake OCO’ Budget Gambit; Hint At Budget Deal

Posted by Paul McLeary on

Navy photo

Rep. Joe Courtney meets with young submarine officers.

WASHINGTON The Trump administration’s $750 billion request for the Pentagon’s 2020 budget is “dead on arrival,” a top House defense Democrat said Wednesday, adding to the bipartisan chorus of lawmakers questioning a controversial accounting gimmick the administration employed in order to make an end run around spending caps.

The comment by Rep Joe Courtney, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces followed similarily pointed comments from his colleague, Rep. Adam Smith, who heads the House Armed Services Committee easier in the day, who also rejected the OCO submission.

Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee

Speaking at the McAleese/Credit Suisse conference in Washington, Smith called the Trump administration’s 2020 budget request “a work on fiction,” while suggesting there’s a deal to be made between the Hill and the White House that might be closer than some might think.

Smith said that Democrats on his committee are looking at a $733 billion defense budget that doesn’t include the $8 billion for border wall construction wedged in there by the White House. Other than that supercharged issue, “we’re really not that far apart on budget numbers,” he said. However, he underlined that, when it comes to border wall funding, “our bill will not fund that.”

The issues the Hill has with the Pentagon budget go much deeper than than the border wall. The Budget Control Act passed in 2011 slapped caps on defense spending that in 2020 top out at $576 billion, so even Smith’s proposed topline goes well beyond what is allowed by law.

Smith has said there is a path to forging a bipartisan budget deal that will raise the caps. But the Trump administration decided to pick a new fight in 2020 by shifting about $100 billion from the base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, which now stands at $174 billion.     

“What the White House seems to think it wants to do is stick to the budget caps while also funding defense. That’s not going to happen. It’s the wrong way to budget,” Smith said.

The OCO account, which has pumped hundreds of billions into supporting troops deployed overseas, along with equipment modernization efforts at times tangentially related to the fights in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, has long been a point of contention for budget hawks and those who want to keep Pentagon funding as transparent as possible.

Smith said the account “was always a little bit fuzzy in terms of using it to fund things that might not necessarily have been part of the overseas contingency operations, but now they’ve eliminated any pretense. They’ve actually divided up the OCO into real OCO and then base OCO,” Smith said.

He called the proposal “FOCO, fake OCO” — to a round of laughter — while flatly rejecting the idea.

“The problem with that is, OK, it’s an opening gambit, whatever. How does the White House work its way back to something sensible?” If there’s no counter-offer, “we are staring at possibly another shutdown or best-case scenario another [continuing resolution] and a delayed defense budget.”

That move hasn’t found many allies in Congress. Ranking HASC Republican Mac Thornberry told reporters Tuesday that “Congress will never agree to this giant OCO increase on its own. I have to confess the reason for doing it that way is not clear.”

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