By Molly O’Toole
Lawmakers say the Obama administration’s Overseas Contingency Operations funding request is a “slush fund” that gives the Pentagon a free pass to engage in any fight, anywhere, without congressional oversight.
Pentagon officials say they need flexibility in an era of unanticipated flare-ups and sequestration-induced cutbacks.
The back-and-forth over OCO funding belies both sides’ resignation to an uncomfortable reality: This is the new normal.
Of the $65.8 billion total requested by the Obama administration for OCO, $58.6 billion is slated for the Defense Department — $20.9 billion less than the $79.4 billion placeholder put into the budget for fiscal year 2015 when it was released in March. As Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work pointed out Wednesday in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on the OCO budget, the request is also $26.7 billion, or roughly one-third, less than the $85.3 billion Congress approved for OCO in its current budget, and $100 billion less than the $159 billion OCO budget four years ago.
“The request reflects a continued, downward trajectory of war-related spending as we conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan after 13 years of war,” Work said. “However, even as the war ends, the department will continue to seek OCO funding to cover the costs of returning, repairing, and replacing equipment until that process is complete, and costs associated with our broader military presence in the Middle East from which we support a number of critical missions in the region, as well as unforeseen contingencies.”
The “associated costs” and “unforeseen contingencies” are the sticking point. The OCO request stipulates $53.4 billion for Operation Enduring Freedom to support the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, but it also includes $6 billion for two new presidential initiatives: $5 billion for a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund ($4 billion for the Defense Department) and $1 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative ($925 million for the Defense Department.)
According to Work, the Pentagon would allocate $2.5 billion of the counterterrorism fund for “counterterrorism support” and $1 billion for stabilizing the region, with aid to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Part of that — $500 million — would go to “train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition,” and an additional $500 million would go to “crisis response.”
Over the course of the next fiscal year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan will draw down to roughly 11,000 — but some 63,000 troops in the Central Command region, parts of Africa and other theaters will remain deployed. “This covers 63,000 men and women who are forward doing national security work every day,” Work said.
“If OCO continues as a fund, it will be even smaller in the years following. And then the way we’ve structured this request, we’re opening it up to other areas of agility we’d have to address,” Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee. “It would be contingency operations, it would not be Afghanistan.”
Immediately after the White House submitted the OCO budget on June 26, lawmakers said they would not be giving President Barack Obama and the Pentagon a blank check. Critics have hit Obama for a muscular interpretation of executive powers, to which he has responded, “This is how wars end in the 21st century.” But what about when that war is not a traditional war at all, but a never-ending global counterterrorism operation? And how do you pay for that?
“There are a variety of other things that made planning and funding complicated and difficult, and has really put us in a hole,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash, ranking member of the committee. “Sequestration doesn’t make any sense. However, none of those other areas of our government have an OCO. … The justification for that spending is something that Congress is going to need to hear.”
Winnefeld said he believes the request is reasonable.
“Sequester has really squeezed our ability to absorb in the department unexpected operations,” he said. “It starts to build a little bit of room for us to manage unanticipated contingencies anywhere in the world.”
“This is not something that we’re making up. … if we had to absorb a large portion of this in one year, we’d in essence have two sequestration hits in one year,” Work added. “It’d be extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
When Winnefeld suggested OCO funding could be seen as a more efficient way to use the defense budget by allowing the Pentagon flexibility, Smith pushed back, suggesting such contingencies should be funded — and planned for — in the overall Pentagon budget.
“There’s always going to be something unanticipated in the defense world,” Smith said. “You try and budget within the parameters of that, and not have a separate budget for ‘if something comes up.’”
Though OCO has been funded for several administrations, at a time when the U.S. is trying to reduce its military engagements, lawmakers from both parties expressed concern that the funding request is setting a dangerous precedent of maintaining a “slush fund” for the Pentagon to use without any congressional oversight.
“I don’t know why you need this money, it’s nothing but a slush fund anyway,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said, “It seems this is just becoming another slush fund … without accountability.”
But Work denied the assertion, repeated throughout the hearing. “We do not believe it is a slush fund that will allow us to go willy nilly,” he said. “We believe that there are going to be all sorts of checks and balances.”