WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee indicated Monday he would seek to increase the wartime contingency fund if the Obama administration backtracks on a budget deal that boosts military spending over mandatory budget caps.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, doubled down on his stance that the "clear agreement" behind last year's two-year bipartisan budget deal between key lawmakers and the White House set $59 billion for the overseas contingency operations (OCO) as a minimum, subject to increase based on current threats.
"The exact amount of OCO needed this year would depend on [military] operations," Thornberry told reporters in a Capitol Hill press conference Monday. "So the budget agreement was weeks before the Paris attacks, for example. In Afghanistan, originally the intention was to reduce the numbers there. That may be undergoing re-evaluation."
Thornberry, in a Jan. 13 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, said he anticipates the administration will reduce the base budget for defense when it is expected to release its budget, on Feb. 9.
In advance of the budget release, Thornberry is already making a case for more funding, saying the $59 billion figure includes a modest increase over the previous year's amount. To do less, he argued, would shortchange defense.
"We're not talking about some big growth," Thornberry said. "To say that, 'No matter how many current operations we're having, we're not going to have more than this,' would eat into that base agreement, and not be consistent with that agreement."
The chairman said he reluctantly supported the two-year budget agreement, "to get through the Obama administration," despite funding levels he considered inadequate, because it provided defense with two years of predictability. A lesser OCO amount would "take away a key benefit of what [the deal] achieved," he said.
"Some members of this committee did not want to sign off on it even then," he said. "My thought was that stability was so important I would agree and voted for that lower level. That's why its so corrosive for the administration, if that comes out."
The 2016 defense policy bill avoided breaking the cap on base budget spending by shifting roughly $38 billion of the total requested for the defense base budget into the OCO account, which — while exempt from the budget caps — is intended to provide emergency funding for pop-up missions. The president, who objected to lifting the spending cap on defense without providing equal relief for non-defense discretionary spending, vetoed the policy bill in protest.
To resolve the impasse, the budget deal raised the discretionary spending caps for both defense and non-defense programs, ultimately tucking about $8 $9.1 billion for base budget activities into the OCO account.
Mandatory budget caps have increased pressure on lawmakers to more broadly define what is included in the emergency fund, which is exempt from the caps, fueling questions about how and when the fund will go away.
Thornberry on Monday said the committee had for years tried to shift wartime funds into the base budget, which was considered more predictable.
"It is possible, and even desirable, that we move more of these requirements into the base budget, but as I say, we are where we are," Thornberry said. "We certainly want to figure out how to have more realistic defense budgeting for the future."
Acknowledging a criticism that OCO is a slush fund, Thornberry said the committee last year exercised oversight of its contents and worked with Congressional appropriators on how to treat the money.
To move OCO into the base budget, according to Thornberry, would require an end to budget caps, known colloquially as sequestration which was made law by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
"There has to be relief from sequestration, no question," Thornberry said. "What we did for '16 and '17 is a momentary pause from catastrophe."