by Pia Furkan, WAND Intern, Washington, DC
The Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund is supposed to pay for the war in Afghanistan. However, there has been building controversy over the past few years about this fund because of the lack of transparency and the use of the funds outside their intended purpose.
OCO seems to have become a slush fund as dollars that should be in the Defense Department’s normal “base” budget continue to be slipped into this fund, outside of budget regulations. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about this war spending slush fund. Concerns from all parties came to the fore at the House Committee on the Budget hearing on July 17.
Right off the bat, Ranking Member Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8) pointed out there clearly has been a trend of moving funding that should be in the Defense Department’s base budget to OCO, a reality that all the committee members can agree on. There are operations and projects that have been funded through OCO that do not fall under the parameters of OCO.
However, because of the nature of the OCO fund, the Pentagon has been able to get away with this. Because many programs can be tied to operations in Afghanistan and in-theater work, these programs could be viewed as belonging in OCO, not in the base budget. The Honorable Robert O. Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, testifying at the hearing said that although the rules for OCO were not as strict at the start of the war, they have become more stringent. Even so, members were still concerned about transparency and the details.
If OCO was created to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, then it only makes sense that OCO will not be needed with the end of the war and drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) pointed out that with the end of the war, the State Department should pursue a development and diplomacy budget and rather than continue with OCO funding.
Otherwise, OCO continues to fund what Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA-2) referred to as “perpetual war.” While most of the questions from the members were about the budgeting process for OCO and the details of the OCO account plans, Congressman Huffman reminded everyone that because there are no war taxes, the OCO funding comes at a cost to civilians because funding is cut from other priorities to continue contributions to this perpetual war bank.
In order to ensure that the OCO account does not side-step normal budgeting rules and to hold OCO accountable and more transparent, Congresswoman Lee asked for support for her latest bill, the Audit the Pentagon Act of 2014, which would impose penalties for Pentagon accounts, including OCO, that are not auditable.
Even with all the talk of increasing partisanship, it is clear that there is bipartisan frustration with the OCO account for its history of using emergency war funding for non-emergency or non-war related operations.
In today’s status quo, if the Pentagon wants to fund something, they can, as Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA-7) phrased it, reach into the cookie jar that is the OCO account. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chair of the Budget Committee also expressed concerns that in asking for OCO funds, the Pentagon is “just basically asking [them] for a…blank check” for security initiatives that belong in the base budget.
His final decision, along with other members of the Committee, is that “the answer is to do things in the base budget that belong in the base budget” which includes some operations that are presently funded by OCO; such as some programs in Afghanistan, a new Syria-Regional Stabilization Initiative, and others. He closed by reiterating that everyone agrees that the concern with OCO is that it is defying normal budgeting process by moving funding that should be in the base budget into OCO.
This hearing in July along with other debate stirring in Congress shows that Congress is growing much more serious about bringing accountability to the Pentagon and transparency to OCO.