The White House on Monday proposed a massive increase in the fiscal 2020 budget for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), from $69 billion to $165 billion, to get around spending caps set to take effect next year under the Budget Control Act.
With defense spending caps set at $576 billion, and a call for a total defense budget of $750 billion for the coming year, the massive increase in OCO funding, ostensibly reserved for war operations, represents an end run around the caps in order to increase the overall budget.
Congress has consistently refused to put adequate funding for military rebuilding and modernization in the Defense Department's baseline budget, and the White House had no recourse but to take advantage of "the fact that OCO is uncapped," a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters.
Senior congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have already questioned the more than 100 percent proposed increase in the OCO budget, and opposition is expected to be especially fierce in the House, which is now controlled by Democrats.
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"The president's budget will apparently rely on a giant OCO gimmick to prop up defense spending," said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, in a joint statement last month.
"This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to make a mockery of the federal budget process, obscure the true cost of military operations, and severely shortchange other investments vital to our national and economic security," they added.
Under the White House proposal, the $165 billion for OCO would include a provision giving the administration the ability to designate $9 billion in funding as emergency spending for southern border security.
The senior administration official said the boost in OCO funding is intended to support the overall goals of the defense budget.
In its release on the defense budget, the White House said the spending plan "builds on steady gains that have restored military readiness, enhanced lethality, increased force size, and driven the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria out of territory it once held."
"On this foundation of strength, the budget reflects the full integration of the National Defense Strategy across DoD, and supports dominance across all domains," the White House said.
However, the OCO plan drew fire before its official presentation.
"I think the idea of having this massive OCO is not one that pretty much anyone takes seriously," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, told defense reporters last week. "The real negotiations will have to happen on Capitol Hill."
Military analysts at conservative think tanks also questioned the White House proposal for a stunning increase in OCO funding.
"The OCO move is remarkably pointless and somewhat counterproductive in that they're trying to increase their leverage in negotiations with the Democrats to get away from parity" under the relative equality for domestic and defense spending directed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, said Rick Berger, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
"In another way, it's self-defeating," Berger said. "By misusing OCO to this degree, the administration has kind of muddled the case for the entire OCO budget. This is a dangerous budget gimmick that doesn't really move the ball forward."
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress has repeatedly used supplemental appropriation acts or designated funding for OCO under emergency requirements to fill gaps in defense spending.
"These funds are not subject to limits on discretionary spending in congressional budget resolutions or to the statutory discretionary spending limits established by the Budget Control Act of 2011," according to the CRS.
Congress appropriated approximately $103 billion for OCO in fiscal 2017, $78 billion in fiscal 2018 and $68.8 billion thus far in fiscal 2019, the CRS said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.