By John M. Donnelly
The equipment for America’s National Guard and Reserve is increasingly funded through an account that contains money not requested by the president, not capped by the budget law and not subject to much open oversight, according to assessments by CQ and the government spending monitors at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The National Guard and Reserve Component Equipment Account has been around since 1981. But it has grown significantly in recent years—ever since it was moved to the war budget, the size of which is not restricted by the budget control law. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Guard and Reserve equipment fund has reaped more than $10 billion that was not part of any budget request.
Just a few years ago, Congress generally added a couple of hundred million dollars annually to the account. But each year since fiscal 2012, when caps on the Pentagon’s non-war budgets were instituted, the off-budget fund for the Guard has swelled to $1 billion or more in annual appropriations, part of a larger expansion of the war account for items not always related to Iraq, Afghanistan or any other conflict.
This week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2016 Defense spending bill that would allocate $1.5 billion for the fund in the coming fiscal year alone, which would be a high water mark.
The U.S. military vigorously defends the fund. But the White House Office of Management and Budget director, Shaun Donovan, wrote to House appropriators this week that adding the funding for the special Guard account is “unnecessary.”
To Stephen Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that monitors federal spending and that has closely tracked the Guard fund, it is a “backdoor” and “unregulated” way to secure funds from Congress.
“I’m sure the Guard can use some of this equipment,” he says. “But in reality it has become little more than a place for lawmakers to stuff cash for a laundry list of parochial projects that don’t make the budget grade.”
De Facto Earmarks?
The fund was created to slightly supplement the Guard and Reserve budget because the regular services were not funding it adequately. Now it provides more than one third of the procurement budget for U.S. citizen-soldiers, even as the special account has received little public scrutiny.
Not only are requests to Congress for this money not a part of the president’s budget, the fund is rarely if ever mentioned in annual hearings on that request. Instead, suggestions for how the money might be spent are only contained in an obscure Defense Department report to Congress each year.
“The process is much more concealed” than that set for the regular budget, says Gordon Adams, a former top official in the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
Each year, the Defense Appropriations panels write into the reports that accompany their spending bills lists of what they call “high priority items” that they “expect” to be bought with the added hundreds of millions of dollars. The items on the lists range from the identifiable (such as “internal and external fuel tanks” or “Humvee modernization”) to the arcane but specific (“In-Flight Propeller Balancing System,” “Semi-permanent Humidity Controlled Shelters”).