Senate Budget Signals Commitment to Ending War in Afghanistan Promptly

A little-noticed provision in the Senate budget resolution is an interesting example of setting political priorities through budgeting.

Due to the protracted showdown over sequestration and the federal budget, this year the House and Senate budget committees drafted budget resolutions before the White House did (usually the President’s budget comes first). These congressional budgets can be an important reflection of congressional priorities and sentiment – particularly this year, when there was no presidential budget from which to take cues.

For Fiscal Year 2014, the Senate's budget provides $50 billion for the war in Afghanistan, through an account known as ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ or OCO (which is separate from the base budget, since war is treated as a special contingency rather than a standard expenditure).

Several weeks later, the Obama administration’s budget requested a much larger  sum for FY 2014, asking for $88.5 billion as a placeholder until it settles on its withdrawal plans.

For 2015, the Senate halves the 2014 amount to $25 billion. After that, the Senate budget provides no war funding at all.. The budget resolution does clarify that reserve funding may be provided after 2015 as needed, but it seems that the preference is for any post-2015 war funding to come out of the base budget.

This is a telling provision, signaling the Senate’s rejection of the “endless war” that has become an American norm over the past decade. The fact that a special ‘contingency’ account for war has become a standard part of the defense budget shows that the federal budget takes war for granted – just like, unfortunately, much of the American public. Now, however, the Senate is using its budgetary priorities to indicate a welcome shift in political priorities.

For its part, the Republican-led House budget provided $90 billion in OCO funding for FY 2014 and $35 billion annually through FY 2023. The $35 billion is likely a placeholder, but it does suggest that the House is willing to continue to provide large sums for war funding for the foreseeable future.

It’s clear that the move to zero out OCO funding after 2015 reflects the Senate’s desire to end the war in Afghanistan, and its frustration with the lack of clear strategic objectives for our mission, as well as with the way that the war has been fought largely on ‘autopilot.’ Last year, the Senate voted 62-33 to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with 13 Republicans voting aye, showing that it had the political will to support an end to the war. Since funding affects policy just as policy affects funding, the Senate’s latest action on the budget may show that there is now a will and a way to finally bring our involvement in Afghanistan to a close.

Let’s hope the White House is listening.