President Trump’s bid to finance the military mission along the U.S. southern border rests in a special off-the-books Pentagon account set aside to finance for ongoing combat operations, but one that critics compare to an unregulated slush fund the administration is exploiting to circumvent federal spending caps.
The record $165 billion dollar request in Mr. Trump’s just-released FY 2020 budget for the Defense Department’s “Overseas Contingency Operations” account — and specifically the $3.6 billion set aside in the OCO for Mr. Trump’s highly-touted border wall, has roiled congressional Democrats and budget hawks on Capitol Hill.
The $165 billion OCO request is on top of the Defense Department’s baseline request of $545 billion, which — along with billions more for defense in non-Pentagon accounts — amounts to a total administration request of $750 billion for defense.
Some $3.6 billion for the border wall is included in a $9 billion “emergency funding” request, embedded into the larger $165 billion wartime funding proposal for next fiscal year, unveiled at the Pentagon Tuesday, Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker said.
But critics say the contingency fund was intended to cover unexpected war-fighting bills at the Pentagon, not as a way to hide predictable spending items that the White House does not want to include in the regular budget.
Traditionally, OCO funds receive less scrutiny from Congress, since they are touted as necessary to keep U.S. operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria fully funded.
The unprecedented size of the OCO request has made it a tempting target for lawmakers questioning Mr. Trump’s overall defense budget.
“I’m very worried. … How do [Pentagon leaders] find their way back to a reasonable point in the discussion?” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, told The Hill.
“Congress would never agree to this giant [wartime funding] increase on its own,” added Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking Republican on the House armed services panel. “I have to confess the reasoning behind doing it that way is not clear to me.”
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe told The Washington Times Tuesday he is heading into defense budget negotiations inclined to support the spending package.
“I’m going to go ahead and support it, and support the president, either way,” the Oklahoma Republican said, noting he is already working with White House officials to adjust the request as needed.
While Mr. Thornberry said he supports a border wall, he questioned the administration’s methods, “Physical barriers can contribute to border security, … but I think it ought to be funded on its own. So don’t take wall money out of the minimum you need for defense,” the Texas Republican told reporters Tuesday.
The $9 billion in emergency funds, including border wall dollars, called for by the Pentagon “is a lot of money. It can build a fair number of necessary military construction projects,” he added. “…When you use defense dollars for [non-defense] purposes, you are taking away from an important defense needs,” he added.
At the Pentagon, Ms. McCusker defended the OCO request.
“We built a budget that is required to carry out the National Defense Strategy,” she said, referring to the White House’s overarching military policy underpinning the budget request. Combat funds “get as much scrutiny as the base budget, with a significant amount of transparency,” she added, dismissing claims the wartime account was being used as a way to skirt congressional spending caps.
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