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A dollar-by-dollar tour of the US’s sprawling national-security budget

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The War Budget: As if its regular budget weren’t enough, the Pentagon also maintains its very own slush fund, formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO.

In theory, the fund is meant to pay for the war on terror — that is, the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa. In practice, it does that and so much more.

After a fight over shutting down the government led to the formation of a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction — known as Simpson-Bowles after its co-chairs, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson — Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011.

It officially put caps on both military and domestic spending that were supposed to save a total of $2 trillion over 10 years. Half of that figure was to come from the Pentagon, as well as from nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy. As it happened, though, there was a huge loophole: that war budget was exempt from the caps.

The Pentagon promptly began to put tens of billions of dollars into it for pet projects that had nothing whatsoever to do with current wars (and the process has never stopped). The level of abuse of this fund remained largely secret for years, with the Pentagon admitting only in 2016 that just half of the money in the OCO went to actual wars, prompting critics and numerous members of Congress — including then-Congressman Mick Mulvaney, now President Trump’s latest chief of staff — to dub it a “slush fund.”

This year’s budget proposal supersizes the slush in that fund to a figure that would likely be considered absurd if it weren’t part of the Pentagon budget.

Of the nearly $174 billion proposed for the war budget and “emergency” funding, only a little more than $25 billion is meant to directly pay for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The rest will be set aside for what’s termed “enduring” activities that would continue even if those wars ended, or to pay for routine Pentagon activities that couldn’t be funded within the constraints of the budget caps.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to work to alter this arrangement. Even if the House leadership were to have its way, however, most of its reductions in the war budget would be offset by lifting caps on the regular Pentagon budget by corresponding amounts. (It’s worth noting that President Trump’s budget calls for someday eliminating the slush fund.)

The 2020 OCO also includes $9.2 billion in “emergency” spending for building Trump’s beloved wall on the US-Mexico border, among other things. Talk about a slush fund! There is no emergency, of course. The executive branch is just seizing taxpayer dollars that Congress refused to provide.

Even supporters of the president’s wall should be troubled by this money grab. As 36 former Republican members of Congress recently argued, “What powers are ceded to a president whose policies you support may also be used by presidents whose policies you abhor.” Of all of Trump’s “security”-related proposals, this is undoubtedly the most likely to be eliminated, or at least scaled back, given the congressional Democrats against it.

War Budget total: $173.8 billion

Running tally: $727.9 billion

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