Lawmakers Question Huge Increase in Pentagon's 'War Budget' for Fiscal 2020

U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division walk on a dismounted patrol outside Camp Fenty, Afghanistan, on Feb. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)
U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division walk on a dismounted patrol outside Camp Fenty, Afghanistan, on Feb. 20, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

House appropriators took a dim view Wednesday of a huge increase in funding for Overseas Contingency Operations and a proposal for a border wall included in the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal 2020.

However, there were no arguments against the proposed 3.1 percent pay raise for the military and retirees, backed by the White House as part of the record $750 billion budget request. That request includes $718 billion for the Defense Department and the rest for the nuclear weapons programs of the Energy Department.

The $718 billion would represent about a 5% increase over the DoD's fiscal 2019 budget.

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were immediately asked to justify the increase from $69 billion to $165 billion in funding for OCO, the so-called "war budget," which doesn't count against budget caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Related: It's Official: 2020 Budget Proposal Has Largest Troop Pay Raise in a Decade

Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Indiana, the subcommittee chairman, charged that the Pentagon and the administration are seeking to use about $100 billion from the proposed $165 billion for OCO to fund the base budget rather than contingency operations in what he called a "thinly disguised" attempt to skirt the caps.

The OCO request is "staggeringly out of proportion to prior efforts to avoid the caps," Visclosky said, and "people's cynicism to this approach can be understood."

He also was critical of the administration's proposal to set aside about $9 billion in the budget for construction of additions to the southern border wall.

"I am grossly offended by the unconstitutional action taken by executive branch to fund the construction of an unauthorized wall on our southern border," Visclosky said. "We are here to appropriate funds for the military, not to make good on a campaign promise."

Republicans on the subcommittee pushed back on Visclosky's charges.

"We do have a problem along the southern border, and I hope we can discuss it in a meaningful way," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said he has three goals in the DoD budget negotiations -- to avoid a government shutdown, avoid a sequester of funds, and avoid a continuing resolution, adding that he won't be too particular on the methods used to achieve those goals while meeting national security needs.

"This OCO thing is a gimmick," Cole said, and "we know it's a gimmick."

In response to the charges about the OCO, Dunford warned that any move to go back to the budget caps would "put at risk our ability to project power -- there's no question in my mind about that."

The U.S. currently has a "competitive advantage" over Russia and China, he said, but the wars since 9/11, he said, have eroded that advantage and affected readiness.

"Recent budgets have allowed us to build readiness," Dunford said, and the current budget proposal would "allow us to continue restoring our competitive advantage."

Shanahan said the budget request was shaped by the January 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) drawn up by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, which outlined the DoD's major shift from the counter-terrorism focus since 9/11 to great power competition with Russia and China.

The NDS is the "undisputed driver of today's budget request," he added.

In addition to the 3.1 percent pay raise for the military, the request also includes the largest increase in research and development funding in 70 years and the largest in shipbuilding in 20 years. It would also provide for a boost in the end strength of the military by 7,700 personnel, Shanahan said.

Shanahan reflected some of the concerns of subcommittee members that sending 3,200 active-duty military members to the southern border is drawing them away from other missions, but he repeatedly said that he is following the lawful order of President Donald Trump.

He said he had no immediate answer to the question of how long troops will be at the border. The first request to send troops the border came a year ago in April, he said, and "we've been on this a la carte approach" to border security.

Shanahan said there are genuine concerns about the capacity of Customs and Border Protection to secure the border.

"They're thousands of people short," he said.

He said that troops are driving buses and serving food at the border, adding "we really need to get back to our primary missions."

However, "we need to secure the border. I have a legal standing order from the commander in chief to support a national emergency" on the border, he said. "I have a legal standing order from the commander in chief. It's within the law."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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