If the President’s Budget Request for FY20 is a movie, then the star of the show would definitely be the Pentagon. Because in the coming fiscal year, the Department of Defense seems to be getting all the positive attention. And at $576 billion in “base” spending and a whopping great $165 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations magically off-budget spending, our leading man is well compensated. Add to that a mysterious $9 billion in unexplained “emergency requirements” and you have a staggeringly high $750 billion requested for across-the-board defense programs.
As a refresher in the current fiscal year, FY19, the Congress appropriated $674.4 billion for the Pentagon. That was broken down between base spending of $606.5 billion, and OCO spending of $67.9 billion. Bear in mind that the Pentagon, along with the rest of the federal government is still subject to the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), as amended. Under the BCA the current cap for defense spending is $576 billion in Fiscal Year 2020. But also remember that in the BCA context, “defense” spending includes monies that are actually appropriated to the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget.
So a base budget request of $576 billion falls squarely within the basic BCA parameters. But as we always say, the devil is in the budget details. And those details are in short supply today. The summary tables that are available show the Pentagon receiving a total of $718.3 billion of that total “defense” spending of $750 billion. Of that, as we said, $165 billion is OCO spending. So, that brings Pentagon “base budget” spending down to $553.3 billion.
The most shocking portion of this request is the statutorily indefensible use of the OCO budget to boost the Pentagon topline well above the limits set by the BCA. Remember that OCO funds are designed to be spent 1) overseas and 2) on contingencies – you know, things that aren’t expected. Surprises. Plot twists to our budget movie. Instead, OCO has evolved into purely a budget con game being played to avoid the cap on Pentagon spending. For historic perspective, the high water mark for OCO spending was in FY08 and was $186.9 billion. In FY08 the United States was in two active shooting wars. As those wars wound down, the reliance on OCO spending dropped. By FY13 we were in double digit billions ($82 billion to be exact) and the lowest spending level was in FY16 at $59 billion. To rise back up to $165 billion when we are not actively engaged in the overseas engagements of previous years is indefensible.
The end of this tragi-comic OCO movie can’t come soon enough.