The dirty little nonsecret of US defense budgeting is the shell game known as the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund. Ostensibly established for emergency funding needs arising from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it now serves as cover for spending on systems and platforms outside the strict caps that sequestration imposed on the base budget.

Now Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, proposes a bold strategy that, whether intended as such or not, would restore some truth to defense spending. He seeks to shift $18 billion in OCO funds to the 2017 base budget to pay for more troops, ships, planes, helicopters and vehicles that service leaders included in their "unfunded wish lists."

In shifting those funds, Thornberry would still hold to the $610 billion top line set by bipartisan agreement but leave the OCO with only enough to cover war spending to next April. Then the new White House administration would have to seek additional OCO funding, which is exempt from sequestration caps.

Like all members of Congress seeking to steer defense spending to their priorities, Thornberry cites a military "readiness crisis." And certainly there is more than a kernel of ground truth to support this: The Army has endured steep cuts to end strength, the Marine Corps is flying old and stressed aircraft, Air Force maintainers are working long hours to keep worn-out aircraft flying, and sailors are spending longer periods away from home on extended deployments.

However, lawmakers' full commitment to restoring readiness in many cases remains questionable, given their bias to first serving their political interests at all costs.

Congress, for example, continues to refuse to consider another round of base realignments and closures (BRAC) despite a great number of unneeded installations. That's because those resource-sucking bases and activities represent jobs — and votes — back home. Pentagon leaders sent Capitol Hill a report showing the Defense Department is paying to operate 22 percent more installation and infrastructure than needed. Shutting them down ultimately would save $2 billion a year, they estimate.

Pentagon leaders have become so frustrated by lawmakers' intransigence in refusing to agree to another BRAC round that they have taken the unprecedented step of threatening to openly defy them and unilaterally begin shutting down unneeded installations so they can direct the savings into critical needs.

And as lawmakers siphon off taxpayer funds to wastefully prop up unneeded installations, and fudge the spending truth through OCO accounting, they squabble over whether to give troops a 2017 pay raise of 1.6 percent or a half-percentage more, 2.1 percent – about $11 a month to an E-4. And they scramble for a legislative fix to spare 63,000 military widows from losing thousands of dollars in federal assistance checks next year.

Defense Department budgeting has long been a hotly contested mess, a plump target for competing interests — from hawks for whom one could never spend enough to others who would redirect much of defense funding to social programs.

Thornberry may be setting up spending to match his own priorities, but he shines a light on the continued abuse of the OCO account. Funding that to match its original intent would be a good start to restoring some honesty to defense budgeting. Allowing DoD to close unneeded infrastructure would be a major leap.

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