By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — Russia’s invasion of Crimea and alleged stoking of instability elsewhere in Ukraine means the US might need to maintain war-funding accounts that some have called a slush fund, says a key House appropriator.
Some Democratic lawmakers and watchdog groups have called on the White House to make 2015 the final year the Pentagon gets an extra budget for overseas operations. They say the Pentagon is using the budget as a slush fund to pay for items not necessarily directly related to the Afghanistan war, but to offset military spending cuts.
But House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., in an April 30 interview in his Capitol Hill office, said there are several reasons to at least consider keeping the controversial “overseas contingency operations [OCO]” budgets beyond next fiscal year.
The 10-term member, who took the gavel of the powerful subcommittee last November, pointed to some well-worn arguments for keeping the budgets, which in recent years have totaled around $85 billion.
“No matter what our military presence is [in Afghanistan], there has been a lot of retrograde there. A lot of stuff has been destroyed, a lot of stuff has been airlifted out of there,” Frelinghuysen said.
“We still have a responsibility to protect the soldiers that are there and the investments we have made there,” he said. “We have made substantial investments and that could rapidly deteriorate and fall apart and we find ourselves back in the same sort of a situation. And if it is not al-Qaeda resurging, it might be the Taliban putting in even more strict Sharia law than certain parts have already been subject to.”
Frelinghuysen, however, injected into the OCO debate a new reason for maintaining the extra military budgets: an increasingly aggressive Russia.
“Who would think that we would have this face off with the Russians here?” he asked.
“You know, for a while people were discounting the need for our basing in Germany,” Frelinghuysen told Defense News. “And now people say, ‘Wait a second here. Putin is spitting in the president’s eye. Maybe we need to take a look at our military posture in Europe’.”
To the new HAC-D chairman, that means “we will always need some ability to provide supplemental dollars.”
“We will need some sort of an account,” he said. “I am not sure what we will call it.”
Kate Blakeley, an analyst at the Center for American Progress who also has studied the defense budget at the Congressional Research Service, said the war-funding budgets have been used as a safety valve, allowing the Pentagon to fund things it otherwise would have had to do without.
Blakeley predicts the Defense Department and its allies will fight hard to keep the OCO beyond 2015. Part of the reason, she said, is it will be very difficult for the department to wean itself off the extra yearly budget.
Lawmakers from both chambers expect a fight next year over the future of the OCO budgets, a battle that will have no shortage of combatants.
For instance, in January a coalition of nearly 30 watchdog and anti-war groups said “Congress and the Pentagon are using the OCO as a ‘slush fund’ to pad the department’s budget and avoid spending reductions.” The groups said Congress “should not be artificially increasing the Pentagon’s budget with accounting tricks, but should instead be targeting wasteful and unnecessary spending.”