It was only five weeks ago that I expressed optimism for some fiscal discipline on the part of the annual appropriations process. My fleeting hope was prompted by the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on military construction refusing to use Overseas Contingency Operations dollars to fund any construction of military facilities requested in the president’s budget.
First, let’s just revisit the pretty simple ideas behind two different spending accounts. One for military construction is supposed to fund just that: military construction. In this account, capital is spent on building projects that are planned, well in advance, both here in the U.S. and abroad. The Overseas Contingency Operation fund is again, for things that are “contingent’ and “operations” overseas, such as wars, not building projects.
As I noted in my column five weeks ago, the Senate on a bipartisan basis recognized this distinction. At that time, statements from both the majority and the minority parties specifically noted they had rejected the war fund gambit and paid for all military construction funding out of the Pentagon’s “base” budget.
The Republicans had this to say: “The bill fully funds, within the base appropriations, $172.4 million in projects requested for Overseas Contingency Operations.”
And the Democrats followed with, “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.”
Unfortunately, the House did not exhibit the same fiscal discipline. The House bill includes military construction programs paid for by the off-budget war fund. And in a departure from tradition, there are no actual projects or locations named in either the bill or report language. Instead, the more than $172 million is split up across the four military services and the Special Operations warriors in large pots of money called either “European Reassurance Initiative” or “Counter terrorism.” This lack of specificity denies Congress its oversight role, and hides where this money is being spent from the public.
Rep. Mulvaney, R-S.C., attempted to insert some common sense and fiscal discipline into this process on the House side by offering amendments to strip out the war budget funding of these programs when the bill was on the floor. As Rep. Mulvaney said, “There is no indication of how this money is being spent. There is no limitation on when it is spent other than we have to spend it in 5 years, and there is no indication on where it is going to be spent other than it has to be outside the United States. That is it. It is hard for me to imagine an example of a less accountable, less transparent way for us to spend money in this country.”
My organization supported this effort which, unfortunately, fell short. Unbelievably, only about 60 members, pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, voted for these fiscally responsible amendments.
Clearly, Congress needs to hear from more organizations and citizens who believe discipline must be brought to bear on the Pentagon budget. Since the Senate refused to go along with this gambit, this is still a measure that could be rejected when the two chambers meet to iron out differences in the bills. We’ll be watching and writing about this issue to shine a light on Congressional inability to use taxpayer dollars wisely.
Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense