The Obama Administration yesterday released the details of its request for war spending (Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO), with a grand total of $66 billion of funding — $60 billion new funding in addition to $6 billion of State Department/international program funding already in the President’s budget. This amount reflects the Administration’s drawdown plans in Afghanistan and is significantly lower than the $85 billion placeholder submitted in the budget.
The request is important because it serves as a benchmark for Congressional appropriators. Because discretionary amounts in the “base budget” are capped but OCO spending isn’t, the temptation exists to shift base spending to OCO for both defense and non-defense spending. Although it can be difficult to parse out what is directly related to war spending, the Administration’s request is a helpful guideline for judging the appropriations made by lawmakers. It helps show whether lawmakers are labeling spending as OCO based on actual war funding needs or simply to get around budget rules.
However, the Administration’s sometimes games the system as well. For example, we previously discussed the $925 million European Reassurance Initiative, whose mission clearly fits within the Defense Department’s core objectives and thus does not belong in OCO. In addition, the request has $5 billion for the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, which includes support for counterterrorism efforts in places other than Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; regardless, its function would seem to be more suited for the base Pentagon and State Department budgets. Finally, the request includes $278 million for a peacekeeping response in the Central African Republic which, while necessary to fulfill a UN obligation, belongs in the base State Department budget.
One particularly notable item is that the Administration’s request provides a reasonable glide path to the war funding levels it anticipates in future years. The budget caps spending in future years at $33 billion per year and eliminates it after 2021. CBO has a similar path, although it doesn’t eliminate spending after 2021.
Lawmakers should take note of the Administration’s request and adhere to the parts directly related to spending on the wars. Furthermore, they should prevent future gaming of the spending caps by codifying a strict definition of what can be defined as OCO, as the House Budget Committee’s report on the FY 2015 budget resolution supports.