BY KATE BRANNEN
Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are worried that the Pentagon is taking a fund that’s historically been used to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and using it to cover just about any unforeseen crisis that may happen next year.
Of the Pentagon’s $59 billion supplemental war-spending bill for 2015, $53 billion will go toward operations in Afghanistan. For the most part, this part of the spending request is relatively uncontroversial on Capitol Hill.
It’s the remaining $6 billion included in the Pentagon’s request that had members of the House Armed Services Committee concerned on Wednesday, July 16.
And though the criticism came from both parties, the harshest words came from the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington.
“If you wanted to use this money to refuel an aircraft carrier, there is nothing in this language to stop you from doing that,” Smith told a panel that included Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Winnefeld, and Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord.
Smith and others wanted to know more about two new presidential initiatives: the $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund and the $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative.
Within the counterterrorism fund is $1 billion for the “Syria Regional Stabilization Initiative,” which includes $500 million to train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition.
President Barack Obama announced the new counterterrorism fund as part of his May 28 West Point speech, explaining that the money “will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya, and facilitating French operations in Mali.”
The White House’s request for the $1 billion in new spending in Europe came in June following the crisis in Ukraine.
Now it’s time for Congress to turn the administration’s request into legislation, and it’s clear that some lawmakers want to place restrictions on the money before any measure is passed in the House or the Senate.
“I’m telling you, this is really, really poorly drafted in terms of narrowing it down to specifics of the purpose,” Smith said Wednesday. “I’ll just say A) this has got to be fixed and B) it’s really not good that it came to us in this form in the first place.”
Put more bluntly, Smith asked the Pentagon officials whether there was anything that would keep the Defense Department from using the money for other things.
McCord responded by saying that this was not the Pentagon’s “intent or design.”
To which Smith shot back, “Your intent and your design are, I’m sorry, irrelevant to this conversation.”
Part of the concern is that the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account exists outside today’s discretionary spending caps and therefore provides a tempting place to which to move projects in order to protect the Defense Department from having to cut its own base budget too deeply.
Winnefeld argued that sequestration, combined with unanticipated operations, like earthquake relief in Japan and the deployment of a Patriot battery in Turkey, are badly squeezing the individual services’ budgets.
For him, OCO funding should be spent on “anything that we do while we’re deployed or that supports our deployments that is over and above what we would normally do in a tabula-rasa, peaceful world, where we’re just maintaining a deterrent presence.”
The Stimson Center’s Russell Rumbaugh said he thought Winnefeld offered a very robust defense of what Rumbaugh calls the “retainer model,” where the Pentagon’s $500 billion base budget covers the costs of just having a Defense Department, but if it’s required to go out and do anything, it needs to be paid more.
Winnefeld’s comments stir up a debate about when supplemental spending should be used for military operations, Rumbaugh said. “It’s absolutely unclear what the future of OCO is, and there is some jostling about the positioning of it.”
The Obama administration is also asking for maximum flexibility to be able to move the counterterrorism money around to where it’s needed. The White House and the Pentagon argue that they need this so that they can respond as quickly as possible when unforeseen threats flare up around the world.
“We do not consider this a slush fund. We want to work with Congress to provide us flexibility and authorities that we already have to respond to a very fast-moving situation,” Work said.
Many lawmakers, by contrast, believe that’s exactly what it is.
“This seems like a lot of leeway that really hampers Congress’s oversight mission. It seems this is becoming another slush fund,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Budget experts have also pointed out that the Pentagon already has other funds and authorities available to conduct similar counterterrorism activities.
For example, there’s the “1206” fund “to train and equip foreign military forces for two specified purposes — counterterrorism and stability operations — and foreign security forces for counterterrorism operations,” according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
And it has the “1208” fund. Authorized in 2005 by Congress, it “provides authority and funds for U.S. [special operations forces] to train and equip regular and irregular indigenous forces to conduct counterterrorism operations,” according to the CRS.
Many lawmakers said they didn’t understand why the Defense Department wanted new funding when those programs are already in place.
In addition to these broader concerns, Republicans and Democrats alike said they don’t want to be left in the dark on these counterterrorism efforts, especially the White House’s plan for Syria.
It’s not just about waste or redundancy, said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio). “We want to know what you’re going to do, because we’re concerned about the outcomes.”
Smith said he thinks the decision to train and arm vetted members of the Syrian opposition is the right one, and even long overdue. But the congressman said he’s troubled by how the White House has made its case for the funding on Capitol Hill.
“It hasn’t been well explained,” he said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We need to do better than: ‘It’s classified, so we can’t talk about it.'”
Winnefeld said the administration had solid reasons for asking for the new Syria money. Heavily armed militants from the Islamic State and the Nusra Front are able to move freely now in parts of Syria and Iraq and pose a direct and growing threat to both the region and U.S. interests around the world.
As for how the money will be spent, Winnefeld said he’s unable to offer many specifics outside a classified hearing.
Smith said he understands the need for secrecy, but urged the officials to be straightforward and explain that the money is intended for training and equipping the moderate rebels.
“I’m painfully aware that there’s a lot going on in the world, but if the White House is going to push a policy like this, then they’ve got to frickin’ push the policy. They can’t just not say anything to us forever,” Smith said. “For the U.S. Congress to vote to authorize a train-and-equip mission for a rebel force is a big damn deal.”