The Senate Appropriations Committee has begun the process of working through the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2017. The subcommittees have started writing and approving the individual pieces of legislation that will eventually fund the various departments of the federal government in the coming fiscal year.
In a Congress that is rapidly becoming famous for doing nothing, this is a refreshing change of pace. Equally refreshing is the fiscal discipline the Senate appropriators are showing in one small portion of the Pentagon’s war fund, formally called the Overseas Contingency Operations account. That small portion is what the administration asked for in military construction, a total of $172.4 million from an overall request of $58.8 billion this year.
To be fair, this off-budget war account has declined since its high point of $186.9 billion in fiscal year 2008. (Of course we were in the midst of two wars at that point as well.) Unfortunately, precisely because the account is off-budget and doesn’t count against the caps set in the various budget agreements in recent years, Congress has consistently larded up the account with billions more than the request. So even a modest amount in the budget request balloons beyond recognition once the budget resolutions and the appropriations bills are completed.
So it is with gratitude and a bit of astonishment that I note the very specific language in the press releases from both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the appropriations committee pointing out that no war-fund money is used in the military sonstruction title. From Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), the full committee chairman, there is this:
“The bill fully funds, within the base appropriations, $172.4 million in projects requested for Overseas Contingency Operations.”
And from the ranking Democrat on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.):
“The $7.9 billion in the bill includes $172.4 million that was requested in the budget under a separate Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) title. … Instead of including a separate OCO title, the Overseas Contingency Operations and European Reassurance Initiative projects are funded in the base Military Construction title. As such, there is no OCO funding in the bill.”
To be sure, this is a small victory. I’ve argued before that military construction projects, built to last for years, are the antithesis of a “contingency” even though they may be overseas. It’s good to see Congress beginning to pull in on the reins of the war fund, even in this modest way.
The Senate appropriators are acting like the grown-ups in the room by acknowledging that the war account can’t simply be used as a slush fund to flow ever-rising levels of money to the Pentagon. The proof will be when the largest appropriations bill, the one to fund the rest of the Pentagon, is considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee. What may just be an anomaly in the military construction bill could actually become a trend if the war fund continues to be scrutinized and programs that should be funded in the military “base budget” of $523.9 billion are transferred back where they belong.
I hope this is a trend. Taxpayers who care about fiscal discipline should hope so, too.