New programs added with little scrutiny
Moreover, the OCO budget isn’t a fiscal salve only once a year. The Defense Department comptroller can — and often does — ask the House and Senate committees on appropriations and armed services for permission throughout the year to add new spending to the OCO budget if programs already in that budget wind up costing less than anticipated. Often, additional non-emergency expenses sneak in during that process.
Over the past four years, for example, the Defense Department’s comptroller has sought congressional approval to add roughly $20 billion worth of expenditures to OCO to cover costs not previously stated in the budget, including many that do not appear to be emergencies or directly related to combat operations, according to a CPI tally.
These “reprogrammings” are typically approved without a public hearing, based merely on written assent from the four chairmen of Congress’s defense-related committees. Their letters are rarely made public.
On occasion, however, the Pentagon submits a reprogramming request for OCO funding so outlandish that lawmakers reject it publicly. That’s what happened on September 8, when Comptroller Michael McCord requested $1.5 billion in OCO funds to purchase 21 Apache helicopters, eight F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes, and assorted spares and repair parts to replace aircraft that the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force had lost in battles over the past two years.
The chairman of the House appropriations defense subcommittee, Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., responded in a letter that his panel was concerned that OCO funds, “which are provided by Congress specifically for ongoing combat operations and related efforts,” were being used to cover Pentagon purchases that had “only tenuous links” to current combat operations. The Apaches and F-35s were characterized as replacements for lost battle equipment, he said, but were already in the Pentagon’s base budget for future years.
Gordon Trowbridge, spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would try to supply copies of other such letters, but did not. Vince Morris, spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Claude Chafin, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said their committees never publicly release such letters and declined to explain why.
A close examination of OCO reprogramming requests that sailed through over the past three years reveals many that seem unrelated to core Iraq and Afghanistan emergency fighting needs: an $86 million request for unemployment compensation for ex-servicemembers; a $13.7 million request for funds to help prosecute alleged 9/11 conspirators; and a $104.5 million request to help test a bomb capable of destroying bunkers 200 feet underground.
Reprogrammings like these are technically allowed only if some of the OCO funding that Congress has already approved suddenly turns out to be greater than necessary. And this winds up happening fairly often. More than half of the nearly $20 billion in recent OCO reprogramming funding has “become available” because Afghanistan combat or direct support costs were “lower than budgeted,” “overestimated,” “reduced,” “lower than forecasted,” and a host of other synonyms used by the Defense Department comptroller for “wrong.”
Using ongoing combat operations to expand the Pentagon’s budget is of course a time-honored tradition. Former President George W. Bush used “emergency supplemental” funding requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to add hundreds of billions of dollars to his annual defense budgets. He was able to do so thanks to a section in a budget statute that defined “emergency requirements” as whatever the president and Congress specified, and exempted those funds from the regular budget caps.
After Obama’s election, many expected him to carry out his campaign pledge to end the abuse of emergency funding. In 2009, the Office of Management and Budget set some firm criteria for OCO expenditures, and in 2010, it tightened them further to restrict the geography, timeframe, and purposes of such spending, as well as to exclude soldier salaries that would be paid whether the soldier was deployed or not. The applicable areas are supposedly only those “in which combat or direct combat support operations occur.”
Defense Department spokesman Urban wrote that the criteria are currently “in force.” But he said the Pentagon sometimes includes “investment-type” funding in OCO. The budget office criteria allow such funding for research and development projects deliverable within 12 months, but Urban acknowledged that for some OCO programs, the funding stream could be used for longer periods.
“Getting an agreement on these criteria was a significant challenge, because OCO is effectively free money,” said Kathleen Peroff, who was the deputy associate director of national security at the Office of Management and Budget until July 2013. And afterwards, the Pentagon sometimes sought — and got — exceptions to the criteria, granted by political officials in the executive office of the president, Peroff said.
“Disciplined intentions sometimes weakened in the face of hard realities of what trade-offs had to be made,” she added.
She said that a $25 million reprogramming request approved in July – after she left – involving software upgrades to Army equipment is a good example of how the OCO budget has been used inappropriately to fund projects that would be needed even if no troops were in Afghanistan.
Gordon Adams, who served as associate director for national security and international affairs at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s and returned briefly to OMB as part of Obama’s transition team in 2009, said in an interview that “we had a sort of informal understanding with the Defense Department that they would follow those guidelines when submitting OCO requests. And if you detected that they’d been honored in the breach, you’d be right. Every year, that breach gets a little wider.”
“The trouble with OCO now is that all three stakeholders have discovered it,” he added. “The Pentagon discovered it first. Then the appropriators discovered, ‘Ahh, we’re operating under caps, but if I move some funds over to OCO, I make room for some stuff the Pentagon didn’t ask for.’ And then this year, the White House discovered it, with programs like the European Reassurance Initiative.”
In June, Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., added an amendment to the 2015 defense bill to give the OMB criteria legal standing. But other lawmakers deleted the provision, citing the fact that the criteria had not been updated in more than four years and noting that “there have been significant fact-of-life world events which dictate a need to re-examine and update those criteria.”
“We’ve been told since we got here that OCO was going away. It was for extraordinary programs, it was not part of the base budget. And clearly now this administration wants to have the OCO money available to them as badly as the Bush administration did,” Mulvaney said in an interview.
Obama’s affinity for the spending dodge was evident in his 2015 request, which said OCO funding is necessary to “support DOD’s strong forward presence in the broader Middle East region,” including by “assuring our regional partners, deterring aggression, and working with our partners to counter terrorism.”
Far from the original OCO task of providing direct support for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration’s current OCO mandate anoints the Pentagon a global therapist, bodyguard, and trainer — and gives it uncapped funding to do all that those roles entail.