By Cathy Burke
A contingency budget derided as the Pentagon’s “slush fund” is paying for the spiraling costs of fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq, reports say.
And for one very practical reason: the Overseas Contingency Operations budget is exempt from sequestration cuts triggered in March 2013 designed to slash more than $1 trillion from the federal budget over a decade.
“It is like a drug. It is the magic feel-good for anybody’s budgetary needs,” Gordon Adams, an analyst with the Stimson Center and a professor at American University, told Stars and Stripes of the OCO.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington estimates the military could face $300 billion in mandatory sequestration cuts, Stars and Stripes reports – even as war costs are mounting so fast some analysts estimate the annual cost of fighting the Islamic State group could range between $2.4 billion and $18 billion.
“Right now, the cost for operations in Iraq are coming out of Overseas Contingency Operations,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at a Council on Foreign Relations forum earlier this week, CBS News reports.
“For the foreseeable future, we believe that is the case.”
“With … Ebola, with all of these things, the European reassurance initiative, we’re going to have to have overseas contingency operations funding for some time,” he added.
“Sequestration will not work, period…. We will not be able to execute the strategy that the president believes is necessary at the sequestration level.”
Nevertheless, the war budget – and the OCO – are coming under intense scrutiny by Congress, with both conservative South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney and California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee blasting the OCO budget as a “slush fund,” CBS News notes.
“It’s a gimmick to avoid the budget cuts that are punishing other critical areas of the budget like education and health,” Lee told CBS News in a statement. “Fundamentally, it is a black box of unchecked federal spending that needs to be eliminated. All [Department of Defense] programs should be funded from the base-budget which is more than sufficient.”
Before exiting Washington for the midterm campaign season, Congress passed a bill to fund the government through Dec. 11, allocating $85 billion for the OCO in the 2015 fiscal year — $26 billion more than President Barack Obama had requested, CBS News reports.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said on the House floor at the time he was all in favor of the interim funding bill “to ensure our armed forces have the resources they need.” But he also lashed out at the OCO as having been “misused by both this administration and the previous administration.”
Conservative North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jone told CBS News in a statement that House Speaker John Boehner needs to “call the House back into session immediately in order to debate this important issue with regards to ISIS. In so doing we can have a full debate on whether war is necessary, what role U.S. forces would play, what victory would look like, how much it would cost and how we should pay for it.”
Adams told Stars and Stripes serious Pentagon reform and cost-cutting will be derailed if OCO spending increases for the war.
“It you don’t do it [reform] now, wait to see the disaster you have when this war is over,” he said.