A Modest Victory for Transparency and Accountability in the DoD Budget

Earlier this week I wrote about the Obama administration’s proposal to shift $5.6 billion dollars out of the Pentagon’s base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Because the OCO budget was exempted from last year’s Budget Control Act (BCA), this gimmick was clearly intended to allow the Pentagon to evade the BCA limits, and had attracted the attention of House Budget chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), Republican Study Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-OH), and a handful of budget watchers. I anticipated that one or more members would call attention to it during floor debate over the defense bill.

Sure enough, on Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) offered an amendment to undo the shift. Unfortunately, Mulvaney’s amendment was ruled out of order, ignoring the fact that the entire defense bill exceeded the BCA spending limits and thus also should have been ruled out of order. I thought the proposal to fix the dubious OCO shift would die there.

Not so. Undaunted, Mulvaney returned with a new amendment co-sponsored with Reps. Jordan and Peter Welch (D-VT) that did not actually transfer any funds—thus conforming to House rules—but that expressed the same goals articulated in the earlier amendment. As Mulvaney, Jordan, and Welch explained in a “dear colleague” letter:

Our amendment, similar to a Sense of the House resolution, supports the policy of moving $5.6 billion in non-war costs back to the Base Budget. It fully supports the resources our troops on the battlefield will need, but it does not actually transfer any funding. It simply highlights a non-partisan issue—accountability and transparency—by demonstrating support to move these non-war costs back to the Base Budget in the FY13 CR and future budget requests. (Emphasis in original)

The gambit worked: the resolution passed 238-178, with strong bipartisan support. House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) voted no, as did Appropriations chair Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-KY) and the House Appropriations Committee-Defense Subcommittee chair C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). But 154 Republicans voted for the amendment, including Budget chairman Ryan, House whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Rules Committee chair David Dreier (R-CA).

It was a modest, and largely symbolic, victory for transparency and accountability. The next step is to end the war in Afghanistan and eliminate the OCO account entirely. That separate pot of money for the war(s) has served to obscure the enormous growth in the Pentagon’s base budget over the past decade.