By Devon Grayson-Wallace
Yesterday, the House passed the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). While many cost-saving measures the Pentagon proposed were rejected, a few amendments to find sensible savings were adopted. Most important of these was an amendment offered by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (SC) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL) to clarify when Pentagon spending should be designated as contingency operations and be funded by the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, or war fund.
Overall, the House NDAA authorizes the full amount of Pentagon spending allowed under the Bipartisan Budget Act for 2015, or $521.3 billion. The bill also authorizes $79.4 billion for the OCO account, the amount of the placeholder request in the President’s Budget. President Obama has not yet submitted an official request for OCO, citing uncertainty about what US operations in Afghanistan will look like after 2014.
The OCO account has become a slush fund for the Pentagon, with some experts estimating that the 2014 Appropriations bill funded $20 billion worth of non-war related items through OCO. By moving items out of the base budget and into the OCO account, Congress was able to circumvent the budget caps on Pentagon spending in fiscal year 2014. The amendment offered by Representatives Mulvaney and Murphy would require the Pentagon to justify items funded in the OCO budget according to criteria developed by the Office of Management and Budget in 2010. While it is a small step forward, it puts the country on the path to limiting the use of this poorly overseen and easily misused war fund.
A few other amendments adopted by the House will help to rein in waste and bloat in the Pentagon budget:
- An amendment offered by Rep. Rick Nolan (MN) to require review of any construction project in Afghanistan costing more than $500,000 that cannot be physically inspected by U.S. personnel.
- An amendment offered by Rep. Tim Walberg (MI) and Rep. Steve Cohen (TN) to prohibit any new funds for the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund until previously appropriated funds have been spent.
- An amendment offered by offered by Rep. Jared Polis (CO) to urge the Secretary of Defense to conduct successful tests before purchasing more ground-based missile defense interceptors. This missile defense system has failed half of its tests since 1999 and none of the tests have involved realistic variables such as decoy warheads, radar-distractions and electronic jamming.
- An amendment offered by Rep. Michael C. Burgess (TX) and Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) to require a report ranking all Pentagon agencies and departments in order of how prepared to be audited they are, as they are required by law.
- An amendment offered by Rep. Morgan Griffith (VA) and Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) to require the DoD to fulfill former Secretary Gates’ initiative to reduce 33 general and flag officer positions by the end of 2015.
It is a modest success that every cost-saving measure we supported which was voted on did pass the House. While these proposals would only save a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the Pentagon each year, that they were all approved is a sign that Congress finally recognizes the need to question Pentagon spending. However, the House Armed Services Committee soundly rejected a number of the Pentagon’s own proposals to save money:
- Refusing to allow a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), even though the last one was in 2005 and about 18 percent of the infrastructure operated by the Army alone is unnecessary.
- Increasing troop pay and benefits by 1.8 percent, rather than the 1 percent requested by the administration.
- Discarding plans to gradually reduce the housing allowances, reductions to commissary subsidies and changes to Tricare.
- Providing funding for weapons systems the Pentagon did not ask for, including the M-1 Abrams tank, the 11th aircraft carrier, and the A-10 Warthog plane.
A few of these proposals were offered in the form of amendments after they were not included in the Committee markup, such as an amendment from House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith (WA) which would have allowed the DoD to save money through BRAC. However, this and other amendments to adopt reductions requested by the Pentagon were not allowed a vote on the House floor.
Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee completed markup of their version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate committee bill also rejects many of the Pentagon’s proposals to save money. The Senate NDAA, like the House bill, provides money to refuel the 11th aircraft carrier, disallows a round of BRAC, continues the A-10 and does not include the plans to change Tricare or reduce subsidies to commissaries. However, the Senate committee’s 2015 NDAA does go along with Pentagon plans to raise troops’ pay by only 1 percent and to reduce housing allowances. Unlike the House bill, the Senate NDAA does not include any money for the OCO account, in the absence of an official request from the President. It is unknown when the bill will come to the Senate floor.
Consensus is growing inside and outside of Congress that Pentagon spending cannot continue to consume as many of our federal dollars as it has for the last decade. It is heartening that the House approved a variety of amendments to provide much-needed oversight and modest spending reductions to the Pentagon budget. However, in the face of their denial to find significant savings by cutting unnecessary weapons and infrastructure, we must continue the push for reductions and reforms to cut wasteful Pentagon spending. The House vote to limit the Pentagon’s slush fund is a good first step.