By William D. Hartung
Last week’s House action on the National Defense Authorization Act was largely an exercise in fantasy budgeting and pork barrel politics. Virtually all of the Pentagon’s major cost saving initiatives were rejected, and key issues like when to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan were not even brought up for debate.
This otherwise dismal showing was partially redeemed by the House’s passage of an amendment that would take the first step towards ending the use of the war budget – formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account – to pay for items that have nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan. The amendment, co-sponsored by Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., proposes using standards developed by the Office of Management and Budget to clarify which items can properly be included in the OCO budget.
This measure is long overdue. In recent years, the OCO budget has been saddled with tens of billions of dollars in expenditures that are unrelated to the war in Afghanistan or any other overseas contingency. Fiscal year 2014 is a good example. Even as troop levels in Afghanistan went down by 39 percent, the total OCO budget remained virtually unchanged. This was partly due to an excessive request from the administration, and partly due to billions in congressional add-ons.
Because the OCO account includes less detail than the Pentagon’s base budget, it’s hard to know exactly how much of the OCO funding authorized in the 2000s was unrelated to the Afghan conflict. But it is certainly in the tens of billions of dollars. Independent analyses by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the Project on Government Oversight suggest that roughly $30 billion of the FY2014 OCO budget involved items that belonged in the Pentagon’s base budget.
The main fight over the war budget will come once the Obama administration puts forward a realistic number for that account later this year, after the administration and the new Afghan government agree on what kind of ongoing presence the United States will have there.
In addition to the challenge of keeping inappropriate expenditures out of the OCO account, there is the question of how long it should continue. Several U.S. military leaders have suggested that the fund should continue for an additional 3 to 4 years, continuing even after the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan drops to zero ..
The stated rationales for keeping a war fund even after there is no war to fund is that the U.S. military needs money to bring troops and equipment home, as well as to “reset the force” by replacing or refurbishing equipment damaged or lost in the war. Neither of these arguments hold up to scrutiny.
Just as the OCO budget during the war included money to move personnel and equipment to Afghanistan as needed, there have already been some funds spent on bringing them home. Future allocations will need to supplement these amounts, but doing so should not cost tens of billions of dollars. For example, some equipment will be left for Afghan forces or destroyed in place, obviating the need to transport it back to the United States. All of this suggests the possibility of devising a smaller, more tightly crafted OCO budget for FY2015, with funds for future years premised on what U.S. presence remains.. But if once war ends, the OCO fund should end as well.
The call for large amounts of funding for reset also rests on shaky ground. As a 2011 study by the Stimson Center has shown, the $1 trillion in procurement funding contained in the Pentagon budget in the decade after 2001 was more than ample to provide the Army with a full inventory of new and/or upgraded vehicles, over and above any equipment that may have been lost in Afghanistan. Similar trends hold for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Given this reality, Congress should carefully scrutinize any funding justified on the grounds of “resetting the force.”
In the name of budget discipline and sound planning, the use of the OCO account as an all-purpose slush fund must end.