The details of the House draft of the military construction spending bill for Fiscal Year 2020 are beginning to emerge. Short version: spending is down (good), but gimmicks have grown (bad). Under this bill more than two-thirds of military construction spending in Europe would flow through a spending cap dodge.
First the good news. Military construction projects overall are reduced by just under $1.9 billion. The Trump Administration requested $9.9 billion and the newly released draft bill would appropriate $8 billion. It’s nice, after several years of Congress simply shoveling money in the direction of the Pentagon, to see some actual oversight and thoughtful consideration of whether the administration’s request is justifiable. That’s good.
But there’s also some bad news. The budget gimmick of dodging spending caps by using the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget line continues in this draft legislation. OCO is a supposedly “off-budget” expenditure of federal funds. “Off-budget” in that it doesn’t count against the caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. “Supposedly” because all these dollars add to our humongous deficit.
Of the $8 billion for military construction, $354 million is funded with OCO dollars. And the addiction to OCO was, unfortunately, allowed to grow. A footnote in the House Report clarifies a question that emerged as we studied the funding tables. “NOTE: Funding for certain Military Construction projects in Bahrain, Italy, and Jordan was requested in Title I and provided in Title IV OCO.” Title I is the base Pentagon budget, and that’s where $53.3 million for “Electrical Systems Upgrade” in Bahrain, $77.4 million for “Communications Station” in Italy, and $424 million for “Air Traffic Control Tower” and $42 million for “Munitions Storage Area” in Jordan were originally requested. Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee chose to move the aggregated amount of $196.7 million to OCO and call it “off budget” instead. That’s bad.
If this was a video game instead of the real life use of your tax dollars, we’d call the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) the Level Two of budget gimmicks. EDI, also magically off-budget, is a massive new program to supposedly reassure our European allies that we’re in Europe for the long haul. We find this curious because 1) we’ve demonstrably been in Europe since 1941 (kind of a long haul) 2) we’re charter members of NATO, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary, and 3) “deterrence” seems hardly to connote “reassurance.”
The military construction projects funded through EDI total a whopping $566.9 million and cover projects in Germany, Iceland, Spain, and numerous classified programs in unspecified countries. This is more than twice as much money as would be spent on construction in Europe that is not funded through EDI or OCO. Those total a measly $243.7 million and cover projects in Cyprus, Germany, Italy, England, and the annual U.S. contribution to the NATO Security Investment Program. That’s also bad.
To end on a good note. The administration requested, in the OCO title, three programs totaling $122.3 million at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As we’ve pointed out, our activities in Cuba qualify as overseas, but are in no way a contingency. The House Appropriations Committee agreed and stripped $88.5 million for a “High Value Detention Facility” (a barracks-like prison) but left in two other programs for a “Detention Legal Office and Comms Center” and a “Communication Facility.” We would argue that those don’t meet the definition of contingencies either, but we’ll take our victories where we can get them.