By Lawrence Korb and Pete Sepp
An unusual alliance is brewing in the House of Representatives and its one that we should all be celebrating and encouraging.
In the House, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney and Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen have joined forces to take on an egregious example of irresponsible government spending: the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO.
Originally meant for emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the account has become a handy trick for lawmakers – and the White House – to quietly boost Pentagon spending outside of the caps mandated by the Budget Control Act.
With the conflict in Iraq nominally over and operations in Afghanistan winding down, the OCO budget is increasingly being used to provide funds for defense-related projects that have nothing to do with its stated purpose.
House and Senate Republicans passed budgets this year that kept DOD’s base budget at the BCA cap level but diverted tens of billions in additional funds — $98 billion to be exact — to the OCO account, which isn’t subject to BCA caps. The White House’s budget asked for $51 billion for OCO.
This budget gimmickry has gotten so far out of control that if OCO was itself a federal agency, it would have the second largest discretionary spending budget, next to, you guessed it, the Defense Department.
“It’s basically crack cocaine for the Pentagon,” a top budget analyst once said.
Mulvaney and Van Hollen have had enough.
The two lawmakers joined forces last week to try to prevent around $500 million in OCO money that would have been used to upgrade U.S. military bases in Poland, Italy, Oman, Bahrain and other places.
Whether or not these facilities should be upgraded is not the issue. The two lawmakers correctly argued that we should be able to budget our money properly and fund these projects via the Pentagon’s base budget, not through ‘off the books’ funds.
Unfortunately, their amendments to the bill funding military construction failed, 191-229, as 19 Democrats declined to join their rest of their Party in reining in the out-of-control OCO account.
Mulvaney lamented on Facebook that: “only 29 Republicans supported the effort.”
“In the greater scheme of things, my amendment was practically nothing,” he said. “It represented, after all, only 8/100ths of one percent of the defense budget. But symbolically it offers a pretty good insight into how Washington works.”
For his part, Van Hollen vowed to continue battling.
“There is clearly bipartisan opposition to using the Overseas Contingency Operations budget as a slush fund for non-war related projects,” he said in a statement after their amendment was defeated. “I will continue to work with Congressman Mulvaney and my other colleagues to fight against this abuse of the budget process.”
OCO may be the most recent accountability issue surrounding Pentagon expenditures, but it is by no means the only one. After all, long before OCO came along, the Defense Department was incapable of passing the type of audit that other agencies have undergone. Meanwhile, fiscal management shortcomings plague programs such as the F-35 fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship.
That’s why taxpayers are hoping that the Mulvaney-Van Hollen effort last week is the start of a wider campaign on the part of our representatives in Washington to stand up for transparent budgeting. Trillions of dollars are at stake.
Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Sepp is president of the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union.