US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, middle, testifies before the House Budget Committee July 17 about the Pentagon's overseas contingency operations budget request. (MCS2 Sean Hurt / US DoD)
WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats showed a rare display of bipartisanship last week when members of both parties criticized the Pentagon’s $58.6 billion war budget request, but experts say Congress will likely approve the measure.
US lawmakers directed the majority of their frustration at a$5 billion White House request for the newly created counterterrorism partnership fund. Of this total, $4 billion is part of the Pentagon’s $58.6 billion overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget request that was sent to Congress in late June. The remaining $1 billion is in the State Department’s OCO request.
At a July 17 House Budget Committee hearing, several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called the counterterrorism request a “blank check,” saying the White House and Defense Department have provided little detail as to how DoD would spend the money.
“The way that [the request is] written, it doesn’t look like there are many restrictions on it,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
At a July 16 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, said, “The legislative proposal for the [counterterrorism fund] the department submitted to the Congress can fairly be described as unconstrained — it is written so that it could be used for almost anything the department does ... up to and including refueling an aircraft carrier while circumventing all the normal reprogramming and transfer rules.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said DoD could use the money to pay for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment for special operations forces (SOF).
“These were specifically designed for partner nation efforts,” Work told the House Budget Committee. “We have requested the flexibility to buy intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that would directly support our partners, increase rotary-wing support for SOF and maritime support to SOF partners,” he said.
This maritime support includes leasing vessels “that permit alternative launch points for SOF forces responding to contingencies beyond the range of existing staging sites,” a Pentagon budget document states.
The budget document also says the counterterrorism accounts could be used to “enhance selected DoD capabilities, which can provide essential support to partner force operations.”
The money could also be used for “purchase of secure intelligence dissemination systems for partner-nations and other ISR-related initiatives,” the document states.
In addition to the contentious counterterrorism request, lawmakers also have questioned the size of the OCO request. Discontentment is growing over DoD’s OCO spending in both political parties and chambers of Congress.
“On the Republican side, it’s the super fiscal conservatives who see this as a way of cheating on the Budget Control Act [spending caps],” Harrison said. “The Democrats, they say: ‘Hey, this is not fair that defense gets an out and the non-defense discretionary doesn’t.’ ”
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. argues that the Pentagon needs to shift money from the OCO accounts to the base budget.
“I still believe decisions are made in a better fashion with a single discussion point and a single budgeting point,” Wittman said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast on July 15.
Lawmakers want DoD to provide more details so they can determine how much of the OCO budget is for operating costs in Afghanistan and how much is for enduring missions.
“The operations that are ongoing right now are all ones that we know, that should be back in the base budget so we can have a continuity of strategy and of proper resourcing so you don’t have these two dialogues that go on,” Wittman said.
Budget analysts have said they estimate more than $30 billion in the OCO budget goes toward costs other than Afghanistan. The budget document says about $11 billion of the OCO request would go toward “the full spectrum of military operations requirements for US personnel operating in Afghanistan.” Another $18.1 billion would go toward “in-theater support outside of Afghanistan.”
Nearly 50 congressional staffers met this month to discuss the Pentagon’s OCO request and what money within that budget should be migrated into the base budget.
“We are making sure that our members get the information about what’s going on and they understand proportionally too where defense falls in line with total efforts to address the deficit,” Wittman said.
“We have to get OCO back into the base budget because supplemental appropriations in the future are going to be ... a thing of the past,” he said.
But Harrison and others say lawmakers are likely to approve the OCO request.
“At the end of the day, I think DoD is going to get most of what they want in the OCO request,” Harrison said.
It would be a tedious, time-consuming task for lawmakers to break war-related and non-war related items out of the budget.
“I don’t think Congress has the insight necessary to cut with a scalpel,” Harrison said. “In the end, I think they’ll err on the side of caution and maybe make a few trims here and there.”
The 2016 OCO request is when things will get interesting, since very few troops will be in Afghanistan.
“Then how do you justify a $50-plus billion OCO request; or even a $30 billion [one],” Harrison said. ■