The 2011 budget deal that imposed caps on federal spending has begun to bite. That’s easy to see with the proposed House Republican budget for 2016 that keeps the lid on domestic spending while popping it open for the military—to the tune of more than a third of a trillion dollars over the coming decade.
It’s a complicated storyline, but worth following if you’re a taxpayer.
For starters, the GOP-controlled House Budget Committee plan pledges to keep the sequestration caps on both domestic and defense spending. But because the nation was waging two wars when Congress wrote the Budget Control Act, it exempted what has come to be called the “overseas contingency operations” account from such limits.
Normal folks used to call what became the OCO account “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” President George W. Bush’s White House called it the “Global War on Terror.” Some in his Pentagon, echoing then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, called it the “long war.”
But shortly after President Obama took office, the Pentagon issued an edict changing the name once again. “This administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror,” it said. “Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.”
But one thing didn’t change: the OCO account can ignore the 2011 budget caps that apply to nearly all other federal discretionary spending. That’s why the GOP plan boosts Obama’s $58 billion for overseas contingencies by $36 billion, for a total of $94 billion. That increase brings the total GOP defense-budget proposal to $613 billion, beyond what Obama wants to spend.
“The proposed House resolution would constitute the most cynical and fraudulent use yet made of the OCO budgetary gimmick,” says Gordon Adams, who oversaw Pentagon spending in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton Administration. “In effect, the House Budget committee is proposing to have their fiscal discipline and eat their defense increase at the same time.”
For four years, the Pentagon and its allies in Congress have fought the defense budget caps. Their inaction has kept the Defense Department from learning to live within them, and the retooling and reforms such an acknowledgement would require. Their fight continues, which is why the service chiefs trekked to Capitol Hill when Obama unveiled his budget and said the caps were hurting national defense. “The number one thing that keeps me up at night is that if we’re asked to respond to an unknown contingency, I will send soldiers to that contingency not properly trained and ready,” Army General Ray Odierno said.
The military and its congressional allies argue that the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, continuing troubles in Afghanistan, and Russia’s threat to Ukraine require increased levels of defense spending. The House proposal would add $387 billion to Pentagon spending between 2016 and 2025.
Yet even without OCO funding, Obama’s proposed 2016 budget of $534 billion would be the largest base budget in Pentagon history and eclipse Cold War spending levels. Any OCO addition would be icing on the cake. “There is no justification, whatever, for this increase,” Adams argues. “It is utterly unrelated to the reality of any combat operations the U.S. is undertaking.”
Even some Republicans didn’t care for the budgetary legerdemain. “I don’t like it,” said Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “OCO is a gimmick.”
Still, the GOP budget plan, like the President’s, is merely a proposal. Next year’s actual budget will have to be hammered out by congressional committees over the coming months.