Congress is abusing its ‘power of the purse’


Article 1 section 9, clause 7 of the U.S. Constitution, the appropriations clause, gives Congress final authority on the appropriation of public funds – the power of the purse. But after the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed budget resolutions with massive off-budget increases for defense, it’s clear Congress is under the illusion that it’s carrying a Birkin bag with a black Amex inside a Prada wallet.

In late March, the House of Representatives approved its budget resolution, adding $92 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), not including funding for the State Department. The Senate version approved $89 billion for OCO, also not including money for State. The Obama administration is scaling back military engagement in Afghanistan, and has vowed not to put American boots on the ground in the fight against ISIL. Yet Congress wants to fund the war account at nearly $40 billion more than the President requested.

To put those numbers into context, if $92 or $89 billion were ever to actually be appropriated for OCO, that spending would be equal to the second largest federal agency – second only to the Department of Defense base request itself.

The budget resolution is largely symbolic. It will never become law as it is nonbinding; nevertheless, both chambers passing budget blueprints that bolster defense spending at the expense of domestic programs foreshadows how the current Congress will continue to practice irresponsible budgeting. For starters, both resolutions are dependent upon the misuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

President Bush established the war funding mechanism after 9/11, at a time when his administration was liberally requesting emergency supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan because it was easier than planning for war spending within the base budget. But Bush stretched the definition of ‘emergency’ and used the supplemental account longer than he should have. The account grew into a true Pentagon slush fund, adding, for instance, funding for the F-15 program when none had been shot down in Afghanistan or Iraq.

President Obama tried to change this by creating Overseas Contingency Operations, and by trying to restrict what does and does not count as OCO eligible. But after the 2011 Budget Control Act instated across-the-board cuts, OCO became a get-out-of-jail-free card for the Pentagon’s wish list, because OCO is not constrained by the caps. The ‘what counts and what doesn’t’ rules quickly slackened. To take an example from budget expert Gordon Adams, “OCO is spending $200- to $300 million on fixing propellers on nuclear submarines. That couldn’t possibly be related to Afghanistan. The last I saw, it was a landlocked country.”

Although the Pentagon certainly treats OCO like funny money, as soon as it’s appropriated, it’s paid for using real American tax-payer dollars.

Congress’s abuse of OCO is like opening up another line of credit, even though it has already maxed out several credit cards. Looks like you can’t actually afford that Birkin bag you’re carrying after all, Department of Defense.

A Senate-House budget conference to create a singular budget agreed upon by both chambers is set for later this month. Thankfully, the resolution is, at the end of the day, largely just words on paper. It is symbolic. Congress has time before the authorization and appropriations processes to get back to reality and craft a budget based on strategy, not egregious spending. We’ve got plenty of ideas for sensible savings in national security.