The GOP and the Great War Spending Scam

I have an op-ed in The National Interest dealing with the GOP’s intramural squabble over defense spending levels in the House and Senate’s budget resolutions for fiscal year 2016, which have now passed their committees.

I explain there how the Republican chairmen of both committees tried to restrain military spending, but lost out to military hawks in their caucus in a newly pernicious way. The resolutions limit appropriations to the legally mandated cap for non-war “defense” spending. But they stuff $38 billion that the White House wanted for the Pentagon above the cap into the uncapped war (“Overseas Contingency Operations” or OCO) account, taking an established scam to evade caps and making it far larger and more blatant. If these spending levels hold, in 2016 the Pentagon would get a total budget roughly equal to its current one, but a much bigger chunk of it would come via OCO.

Thus far, then, the fight between GOP budget and fiscal hawks has produced a compromise that offers a new sort of militarism amid a pretension of fiscal responsibility. That outcome, I argue, may be worse than giving the administration a deal to raise the cap:

The problem … isn’t just that military spending is too high. It is also that this method of paying creates perverse incentives. If OCO becomes an auxiliary Pentagon fund that exists to escape caps, war becomes the Pentagon’s budgetary salvation. Historically, the elements of the defense establishment benefit from a public sense of insecurity, but not necessarily war. This new set-up could change that.

I say “may” be worse because of a couple uncertainties. One is that hawks upset about this arrangement may have a point. They worry that locating this money in a shrinking war account makes it unlikely to last. I hope not.

Second, the reaction of Democrats is uncertain. Some may work with Republican budget hawks to strip the extra OCO money out on the floor, which has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. Under current Senate rules, that apparently takes only 50 votes. But those Democrats–like President Obama, Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI), and various other heavies–who want to boost military spending may agree to do so through OCO. Where the leadership comes down, I can’t say.