By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — A massive US government spending bill introduced Monday evening would ramp up war spending for the first time in four years, and it includes billions for new weapon systems.
A trillion-dollar, government-wide omnibus spending measure crafted by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees includes $5 billion more for America’s overseas conflicts than requested by the White House.
Included in the $85 billion war-funding section, also called the overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget, is more than $6 billion in procurement funds spread across the Defense Department.
“It appears Congress used the OCO loophole to increase the base defense budget without breaching the budget caps they just agreed to,” said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“The cuts from [operations and maintenance accounts] and procurement in the base budget were largely offset by corresponding increases in the OCO budget, which doesn’t count against the budget caps,” he said. “This is nothing new — Congress and DoD have been using this tactic to soften the impact of budget constraints for several years now.”
The proposed war-funding hike would, if approved by both chambers this week and signed by President Barack Obama, swell the OCO account over the previous year’s level for the first time since 2010. That year, the war account received around $160 billion, up from just over $140 billion in 2009, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The war account has been steadily shrinking since then.
Lawmakers were able to use the OCO account, which is immune from sequestration cuts, to provide the Pentagon some relief from another across-the-board cut (about $20 billion) from its coming 2014 allocation.
The biggest recipient of OCO procurement funds would be the Air Force, which would get $2.5 billion for its “other procurement” account. The National Guard and Reserve also would score big, receiving $1 billion “for procurement of aircraft, missiles, tracked combat vehicles, ammunition, other weapons and other procurement,” according to the omnibus bill.
Mirroring the base Pentagon budget section of the omnibus, the OCO section features $669 million for Army aircraft purchases. The Army also would receive $653 million to buy other equipment, and a $128.6 million allotment for missiles.
Within those accounts, $386 million is slated for Boeing CH-47 helicopters; $142 million for Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopters; $54 million for Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles; and $117 million for upgrades to Bell OH-58 helicopters.
One analyst and industry consultant said the Army and industrial base will benefit from the aircraft funds.
“The Army’s revised base budget for 2014 cuts procurement by 10 percent from the original request, so the additional funding under OCO for rotorcraft purchases is important to sustaining a viable industrial base,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “Boeing Vertical [the new name of its rotorcraft unit] and Bell Helicopter Textron look to be major beneficiaries of OCO procurement funds.”
Several groups are not as upbeat about the larger war-spending account, however.
A coalition of nearly 30 watchdog and anti-war groups, in a statement issued Tuesday, said, “Congress and the Pentagon are using the OCO as a ‘slush fund’ to pad the department’s budget and avoid spending reductions.” The groups say Congress “should not be artificially increasing the Pentagon’s budget with accounting tricks, but should instead be targeting wasteful and unnecessary spending.”
“Members of both parties and both chambers have once again failed the American taxpayer by increasing the Overseas Contingency Operations account,” David Williams, president of one of the groups, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said in the statement. “There is no excuse for a $5 billion increase to OCO especially in a time of belt tightening throughout the federal government.”
The bill also proposes $211 million for the Navy’s aircraft procurement account, and $125 million for total Marine Corps procurement.
The war-funding bill calls for $57 million for AV-8B Harrier jet work; $49 million for electronic countermeasures; $35.5 million for Boeing-built F/A-18 fighters; $20.7 million for electronic warfare items for Marine air-ground task force aircraft; and $13 million for Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout drone helicopters.
The Air Force, notably, would get fewer OCO dollars for aircraft than the Army: $188.8 million. The air service also would receive $24.2 million for missiles.
Within the former, the bill calls for $73 million for one CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. In the latter, $24.2 million would buy new Hellfire missiles.
The Hellfire missile and Predator drone have become a symbol of the Obama administration’s aggressive targeted killing program of al-Qaida leaders and operatives from Pakistan to Yemen and elsewhere.