In the budget war between defense hawks and fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Congress, the former appear to have won a decisive battle.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted in favor of a fiscal 2016 budget that includes almost $100 billion in war funding for the Defense Department. That would be the highest level in four years, even though the number of American troops in war zones has plummeted since fiscal 2012.
In the words of the GOP's own Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the move is a "gimmick," a way to get around spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which doesn't apply to funding for so-called overseas contingency operations, known as OCO in Pentagon parlance.
Indeed, Republicans seem to have arrived at the $96 billion quite simply: They took the Obama administration's $58 billion request for OCO (including related State Department activities), then added the $38 billion the White House is seeking for the regular defense budget beyond the spending limits.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is requesting a base budget of $534 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Here's how Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who oversaw national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, described the budget chicanery. “It just risks becoming permanent business,” he told Politico. “We just have a slush fund for defense, period.”
While McCain, a frequent critic of wasteful government spending, said he didn't like the idea of padding the war budget with unnecessary expenses, he said he would support the move because it provides relief from sequestration spending caps.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who pleaded with lawmakers to roll back sequestration, has said President Obama would veto the House budget for using an emergency war fund to skirt defense spending limits. Carter criticized the idea in remarks Thursday at the State Department.
"Proposals to shoe-horn DoD's base budget funds into our contingency accounts would fail to solve the problem, while also undermining basic principles of accountability and responsible long-term planning," he said.
Even so, it's hard to imagine the Pentagon won't take the cash, whether lawmakers deposit it in the war account or elsewhere.