The 2016 House and Senate budget proposals for war spending that moved toward a congressional floor vote this week were loaded up with tens of billions of dollars more than the Defense Department requested, representing the largest increase lawmakers have attempted to add to the executive branch’s requests for such funds.
These moves — which come as the Obama administration tries to wind down the U.S. war in Afghanistan and to steer clear of a large new incursion in Iraq — were pushed through by Republican lawmakers that since 2003 have received a total $8 million in contributions from the political action committees and employees of top defense contractors, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
The proposals emerged from a convoluted congressional debate that pitted pro-defense hawks against federal deficit hawks, with the former — backed by defense industry lobbying — emerging triumphant.
The impetus for boosting war spending is that Congress enacted strict controls on regular Pentagon spending in 2011 and alleviated them only slightly last fiscal year, making a cut likely unless the Pentagon and the defense industry found new funds elsewhere. Supportive lawmakers as a result turned to the only military account not subject to spending caps, namely the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), a funding category created in 2001 for temporary expenditures associated with combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the Center for Public Integrity reported in December, OCO over the years has become a slush fund for lawmakers and administration officials seeking to retain or expand military programs with no direct relationship to those wars.
But they’ve never sought to do it as blatantly or unashamedly as they did this month, when the Senate Budget Committee voted in a straight party-line vote to spend $96 billion in the OCO budget for 2016, and the House Budget Committee voted similarly to spend $94 billion. The amount appropriated for OCO in 2015 was $63 billion. While no precise listing of theadditional programs to be funded under the Republican proposals has yet been released, lawmakers who favored the OCO increases did not assert that the extra funds were needed only for the wars.
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) were the principal sponsors of the successful Senate amendment to grow the OCO account. In urging a positive vote, Graham — who is exploring a presidential run — provided a long but imprecise list of security threats: “Everything that you have in common, radical Islam hates, and if somebody doesn’t do something about it soon, they will come our way again,” he told the committee, adding that increases to the OCO account were needed “to defend the nation.”
Signaling a difference of views among Republicans, the House Rules Committee on Monday night approved two versions of the OCO provision, requiring a final decision on the House floor. One sets OCO spending at $94 billion but requires $20 billion of that sum to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, and another sets OCO spending at $96 billion while not requiring any offsets.