The practice of slipping unrelated or pet projects into spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — from new helicopters to fighter aircraft — has long been derided as deceptive and financially irresponsible.
But now lawmakers have taken the budget gimmickry to a whole new level — no longer even pretending that billions of dollars in additional war spending would go to fight Islamic State militants and the Taliban.
The proposals in the House and Senate to add about $38 billion to the Obama administration’s $58 billion war spending request threatens to create an authorized “slush fund,” according to budget analysts and spending critics.
The beefed-up war budget is an attractive option for both defense and fiscal hawks because it would not count against the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act but is seen by some as a dangerous precedent for how Congress finances the Pentagon.
“It just risks becoming permanent business,” said Gordon Adams, a White House budget official in the Clinton administration who teaches at American University. “We just have a slush fund for defense, period.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain has called it a “gimmick,” and Democrats complain that larding up the separate war funding bill with extra spending amounts to an “abusive loophole.” Yet so far, the massive increase is likely to remain in this year’s budget.
The practice of funding military operations through a separate spending account — called the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, fund — was initially conceived as an “emergency” option, since wars cannot be budgeted for ahead of time and require supplemental funding as needs arise.
War budgets have historically received far less scrutiny than the Pentagon’s so-called base budget. Weapons or equipment requested in these supplemental appropriations do not require detailed justifications. And, politically, lawmakers have also been less willing to vote against the budget that funds troops in foreign wars — making the measures easier to pass without serious scrubbing.
The Congressional Budget Office has complained over the years about what former Assistant Director Robert Sunshine called “relatively little backup material” for war budgets.
In one recent case, a $33 billion Pentagon war request for “operations and maintenance” funding was accompanied by just five pages of explanation.
Another major criticism of the process has been its common use to fund favored projects and other items not directly tied to the war — a trend that has steadily grown over the years as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on and the Pentagon loosened the definition of war-related spending.
From 2001 to 2014, nearly $71 billion of nonwar funding was provided through war appropriations, according to the Pentagon’s own definition, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported in December.
For example, several years ago the Army and Marine Corps began financing some pay and benefits through the war budget. And the White House has relied on the OCO budget for several recent proposals, including last year’s European Reassurance Initiative, which sought up to $1 billion in war funding for training and deployments in Europe.
Congress, too, has taken advantage of the war budget to fund programs that did not make it into the regular budget, such as $1 billion in equipment for the National Guard and Reserve.
Congress has sometimes blocked requests to use war funds for military hardware. Last year, for instance, the Pentagon requested $1.5 billion in the war budget toward the purchase of 21 Apache helicopters for the Army and eight F-35 fighter jets for the Air Force.
But the request was rejected by House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who said at the time “the committee is concerned that OCO appropriations … are being utilized in this reprogramming to backfill budgetary shortfalls in acquisition programs that have only tenuous links to the fight in Afghanistan and other current operations.”
The latest proposal by the GOP was a compromise between fiscal and defense hawks openly feuding over Pentagon spending. In both the House and Senate budget proposals, supporters are pushing for a total of $96 billion in war spending for fiscal 2016 to make up for the $38 billion in regular military spending that the Obama administration was seeking to add above the spending cap to its $561 billion base defense budget.
With fiscal hawks refusing to raise the spending limits for base defense spending, defense hawks argue that relying on the war budget is the least-bad option to provide the Pentagon with funding levels military leaders say they desperately need in the wake of automatic cuts to federal spending known as sequestration.
But even they acknowledge it’s “not the way” defense spending should be handled.
“It’s the best of a bunch of bad solutions,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. “This is not the way we should be treating OCO. We at one time said we did not want to do it that way.”
The task of determining how to allocate the additional $38 billion in war funding will be left to the appropriations committees, if they are able to pass bills with the added spending. The administration’s initial $58 billion request already includes more than $42 billion for the war in Afghanistan and $5 billion for operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
When the House first floated the idea to boost war funding last week, McCain dismissed it. But he came around to back the idea when he realized it was the only politically viable path to more defense spending.
Yet, in the past, McCain has been one of the fiercest critics of the war budgeting process — particularly when it has been used to pay for unrelated projects.
In 2006, he co-sponsored an amendment requiring that all future war funding be routed through the normal budget process.
“Adding hundreds of billions of dollars that are more conveniently designated as emergency expenditures — so that they don’t have to be budgeted for along with other national priorities — is only making the fiscal problem that much greater,” McCain said in a floor speech then. “It is unfortunate that, at a time of war and with such a huge deficit and burgeoning debt, we continue to fund unnecessary projects and load up emergency supplemental appropriations bills with non-emergency items.”
While McCain’s measure to nix separate war budgets was approved, then-President George W. Bush asserted his executive authority to ignore it.
What is now in the offing is a scale of abuse not yet seen, according to Winslow Wheeler, a former national security staffer for members of both parties and longtime Pentagon spending critic.
“Four or five years ago, Congress embraced it as a gimmick for $5 [billion] to $10 billion extra,” he said. “Now, they want to embrace it for $40 billion extra.”
In his view, both sides in the defense spending debate — those, like McCain, who insisted on the dire need to increase the regular defense budget and fiscal hawks who were loath to bust the spending caps imposed on the Pentagon budget – gave in.
“They both caved from their alleged principles in order to give the defense budget more money,” Wheeler said.
The proposal to add war spending to the budget resolution still has a number of hurdles to overcome.
In the House, Republican leaders plan to hold votes on two budgets — one with $96 billion in OCO spending and one without. And in the Senate, a budget “point of order” was kept in the budget for any war spending above $58 billion, which would require 60 votes to approve the higher level on a defense appropriations bill.
Many Democrats appear wary of going along.
A Democratic amendment that failed in the House Budget Committee last week sought to prevent the war budget from being used as way to increase defense spending while not breaking the Budget Control Act spending limits.
The amendment, which was defeated on a party-line vote of 22 Republicans to 14 Democrats, asserted that using the war budget in this manner would constitute a “backdoor loophole that undermines the integrity of the budget process.”
“Both Pentagon and Congress have abused this loophole,” the amendment read.
During the budget debate, defense hawks made the argument that the higher war budget is tied — at least in part — to the war. They noted that the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan and operations against ISIL could still ramp up.
But Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that line of thinking is dubious.
“Those arguments won’t add up to $38 billion,” he said. “They won’t even come close.”