With sequestration looming, lawmakers are becoming increasingly comfortable sliding larger and larger parts of the defense budget into an emergency war fund, rather than cutting the tremendous levels of waste at the Pentagon as they’ve been mandated to do under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The war budget, more formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), is normally used in emergency situations, like the funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the past, the war budget has been used for nonwar projects, what’s different this time around is the sheer size of the amount House and Senate lawmakers have in mind for slotting into the OCO: $96 billion dollars.
This amounts to $38 billion more than even the White House requested. And a report from the Congressional Research Service in December pointed out that the entire amount of the OCO from 2001-2014 totaled only $71 billion.
In this case, the reason the OCO may be an effective option is that sequestration caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 simply do not apply.
Additionally, lawmakers are hardly even justifying the OCO move with the pretense that the funds might be used to fight the Islamic State. GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona was at first quick to deride OCO funding as a gimmick. But like other Republicans in the Senate, McCain has since come around, viewing the OCO as a necessary and viable step for passing the defense budget.
“I think that we need to support, reluctantly, the OCO provision, which is to some degree a gimmick,” McCain said to reporters recently. “But as opposed to going with the effects of sequestration, I would support OCO as the House acted.”
Interestingly, McCain in 2006 forwarded an amendment mandating that war fund’s spending be put through the regular budget process, but the amendment did not pass muster with then-President George W. Bush.
Some Republicans think that the $613 billion dollar total, composed of $523 billion base funding and approximately $90 billion in the OCO, just isn’t large enough. On Tuesday, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton stated that the last budget to come close to a realistic level of defense funding was the 2012 budget from the Pentagon, which predicted that fiscal year 2016 would need a total of $661 billion dollars. The two senators introduced an amendment placing base defense funding at $611 billion, with an OCO amount of $50 billion. And according to Cotton, even a total budget of $661 may be insufficient.
Yet, an op-ed in the New York Times recently pointed out that the demand for massive defense budget increases stands in considerable tension with the level of waste at the Pentagon, which continues to spiral out of control. Plagued by delays and technical issues, the F-35 program has consistently gone over budget, with a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing that just last year, the F-35 program required an extra $4.3 billion dollars.
In total, the F-35 has skyrocketed $170 billion dollars over budget, and counts as the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program in its history. Cost overruns in Afghanistan, too, have been relentlessly highlighted by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
On Wednesday, representatives in the House voted on two defense budgets under a rule called the “Queen-of-the-Hill,” which stipulates that the proposal with the most votes continues onward. The budget with higher defense spending, $96 billion in the OCO, as opposed to only $94 billion, passed by a vote of 219-208. A final vote needs to be held for the budget resolution to be approved by the House. A total of three other liberal budgets were rejected earlier on Wednesday, as well as the Republican Study Committee budget which proposed to balance the budget in five years, instead of ten.
The situation in the Senate is slightly more precarious, as Republicans control only 54 seats. This means that a loss of 5 votes could derail the budget. The Senate Budget Committee voted for a slightly higher amount than the House, at $96 billion. Some Democratic support will be necessary.
On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called the move to push funding through the OCO, a “fraud, a hoax, certainly a political gimmick.” While Democrats can’t filibuster budget resolutions, they still have the option of playing the filibuster card against funding bills to gum up the defense budget process.
No list of the programs expected to be funded under the OCO has yet been released.