After more than a few budget antics this weekend, both the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 3979) and FY15 Omnibus (H.R. 83), or “Cromnibus,” have cleared Congress.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees completed behind-the-scenes negotiations on the NDAA on December 1st then moved on to a vote in the House on December 5th, where the bill passed 300-119. On December 12th, the Senate lent its approval to the bill by a vote of 89-11, marking the 53rd consecutive NDAA approved by Congress.
By Angela Canterbury and Sarah Tully
It was a strong start earlier this year, when President Obama made a budget request for the Pentagon that was finally in line with the law of the land—the Budget Control Act (BCA). But that’s ancient history.
The President’s original request came in just under the BCA budget caps for Pentagon spending at $496 billion for Fiscal Year 2015. But that didn’t include the other Pentagon spending request that was to follow. There was an additional $59 billion requested for the Overseas Contingency Operations (known as OCO). Taken together, this $555 billion would appear to bust the budget caps set by the BCA, but not really. That’s because OCO doesn’t count against the caps.
Now the administration has announced it would will submit a request to add another $5.6 billion dollars to their OCO request to Congress for “activities to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.” This adds up to $65.6 billion dollars in extra spending for the Pentagon. Many experts say there is plenty of funding in the base budget to cover the current military engagement in Iraq and Syria, and we agree.
As you can see below, while the Pentagon budget has decreased and leveled out over the course of Obama’s term, OCO spending has remained relatively high. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the amount is higher than what President Bush spent in each of his first five years in office, from FY 2002 to FY 2006. If you take OCO out of the equation, Obama’s Pentagon is still spending more than all but the final year of the Bush administration.
But put aside how much we are spending on overseas contingencies, the Overseas Contingency Operations account isn’t used for that alone.
OCO was established under President Obama in 2009 to replace the emergency supplemental appropriations that had previously been used to fund the wars. OCO was intended to institutionalize this funding and force the Pentagon to be more transparent about what was actually being funded by the war request.
In recent years, however, OCO has been treated more as a slush fund for projects sometimes only tangentially related to overseas operations. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that the projected FY 2015 OCO budget includes over $30 billion in DoD base budget funds that have been shifted to the OCO budget.
To give a recent example, as part of the DoD portion of the FY 2014 omnibus, $9.3 billion dollars for operations and maintenance was transferred directly from the base budget to OCO. OCO is not subject to budget caps or sequestration, thus the Pentagon, thanks to Congress, is able to use OCO to soften the blow of the budget caps, effectively defeating the purpose of the Budget Control Act.
Even advocates of higher defense spending have a problem with this abuse of the system. Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain, speaking on the Senate floor about the FY 2011 Defense Appropriations bill said, “…billions in the war-funding accounts – my staff has estimated close to $8 billion – have been allocated by the Appropriations Committees for new spending not requested by the Administration, or transferred to pay items that were originally requested in the base budget for non-war related expenses.”
In September, House Defense Appropriations rejected part of a reprogramming request from the Pentagon that would have funded, among other things, 8 additional F-35s and 21 Apache helicopters using money from the OCO. This was a request to move $1.3 billion from OCO account back to the base budget.
In USA Today, Ryan Alexander, President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted with interest some fuzzy math. The new OCO request includes an additional “$464 million in Defense-wide operations and maintenance and an additional $779.6 million in those accounts for the Army.” Alexander quips:
Now, I don’t have access to any of the fancy calculators they have at the Pentagon, but the one on my smart phone tells me if you add those two numbers together you come up with $1.243 billion, which is pretty close to the $1.3 billion the Pentagon said it didn’t need and could transfer to the F-35.
So is the OCO request for ISIL or the F-35?
In any case, the OCO account itself has become a budget gimmick. Further, it is simply irresponsible budgeting: All military spending should be subject to the oversight of the actual military budget. Meanwhile, we hope Congress will continue to question OCO being used as a slush fund.
Last week House Defense Appropriations rejected part of a reprogramming request from the Pentagon that would have funded, among other things, 8 additional F-35s and 21 Apache helicopters using money from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.
In a letter to Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord, Panel chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen cites policy guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that expressly excludes non-war-related funding from the acceptable uses of OCO funds.
The Committee is concerned that OCO appropriations, which are provided by Congress specifically for ongoing combat operations and related efforts,” says Frelinghuysen, “are being utilized in this reprogramming to backfill budgetary shortfalls in acquisition programs that have only tenuous links to the fight in Afghanistan and other current operations.”
The letter specifically cites reprogramming requests for the F-35 and Apache helicopter, which amount to ~$1.5 billion, 80 percent of the Pentagon’s requested increase, as problematic.
Of course, budget watchdogs have lamented the unrelated use of OCO funds for years, but this is the first time a congressional committee has rejected such a high profile proposal. And the rejection is significant, since reprogramming requests must be approved by all 4 congressional defense authorizing and appropriating panels.
And hey, since the Pentagon is essentially recognizing that it has some extra money lying around by requesting the funding shift at all, one would think that the rejection would result in some savings, right? Not so much.
Barring congressional action to the contrary, the funds will return to their original allocations awaiting what is likely to be a new request.
A Pentagon spokesperson said Monday that officials will continue “to work with Congress to finalize our reprogramming request.”
Because surely the Pentagon can find something to spend all that money on.
One of the more glaring head-scratchers about U.S. nuclear policy is that we continue to forward deploy roughly 180 tactical B61s in Europe despite the fact that the military mission for which these weapons was originally intended – stopping a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because of inferior US/NATO conventional forces – no longer exists.
The saga continues in the fight to fund the F-35 extra engine. Today, the House voted 233-198 on an amendment that would cancel the program.
The vote split both Republicans and Democrats, with over 100 Republicans and around 130 Democrats voting yes. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) took the lead on the amendment, crediting House GOP leaders with allowing a vote on the issue despite Speaker John Boehner’s opposition.
Freshman Republicans in the House were initially hesitant to trim military spending, but have since broken ranks with their party’s speaker to include $16 billion in military cuts in the current spending bill. Cutting the F-35 extra engine would save an additional $450 million.
House GOP leaders hope to pass the overall spending bill later this week, which would fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year, but the buck does not stop there. The bill then goes to the Senate. Funding for the extra engine could be among the many changes that are made.