Possibility of second DoD emergency fund raises questions over OCO’s purpose

The Defense Department is considering appealing to Congress for another emergency wartime fund to pay for extra troops that will stay in Afghanistan through 2017.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2017, almost 3,000 more than what the government planned.

The 2017 DoD base budget and its supplemental wartime kitty, the overseas operations contingency (OCO) fund, have already been maxed out. The 2015 budget agreement set caps on each of those budgets, which Congress has already filled to the brim.

That means in order to legally add more money to DoD to pay for the extra troops in Afghanistan, Congress and DoD will have to circumvent the rules of the budget deal.

A second supplemental fund like OCO is one way to do it.

After President Obama announced more troops would be staying in Afghanistan, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) urged DoD to come up with a spending plan.

“This budget does not have room for the troops [the President] is committing.  For all of the bluster about funding troops in harm’s way, it is the President who proposes to extend the vital mission without any resources behind it.  The White House must submit a supplemental funding request to accommodate troop levels in Afghanistan immediately,” Thornberry said in a July 6 statement.

The next day, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he didn’t know if DoD would need more funds for the extra troops. He added DoD needs to go through the estimation process.

Carter mentioned the possibility of a supplemental budget request.

“We’re looking at that right now.  Chairman Thornberry recognized that point.  We recognize that point as well.  And so we’ll be making that determination as we go through the process of estimating costs and what we already have in our supplemental — or OCO budget.  And we’ll make adjustments if we need to,” Carter said during a media availability on his way to Warsaw, Poland.

Thornberry responded to Carter in a July 8 statement. “I am encouraged to learn that the Secretary is considering a supplemental budget request to fund the troops,” he said. “I would have profound reservations about any reprogramming request that would further cut readiness to support this mission.”

The discussion over a second wartime supplement begs the question, has OCO completely strayed from its intended purpose?

OCO has been taking criticism from military officials and experts for years.

“OCO has become a ‘slush fund,’ with the sole purpose of providing the Pentagon support above and beyond the [sequestration] budget caps,” states a May  study from the Stimson Center.

As the fund has become more ingrained in DoD culture, it has been used less as a means to pay for war expenses and more of a way to worm around the rules of sequestration.

OCO funding is not subjected to sequestration caps. So when Congress can’t fit important DoD programs into the over packed suitcase that is the base budget, it just sneaks it into OCO.

OCO got so big and was allowing for so much extra defense funding while leaving domestic spending to pay by the rules of sequestration that the 2015 budget deal put a cap on OCO. But now, this new supplemental may bypass that cap too.

The House proposed in its 2017 defense authorization bill a maneuver that would require Congress to vote on two OCO type funds in one fiscal year. The tactic is a way for Congress to pay for more military end strength and a higher military pay raise.

The bill takes $18 billion from OCO to pay for the increases, leaving war funds to dry up in April 2017. At that point Congress would have to create another supplemental to pay for the wars through the end of the year.

Critics worry the measure could leave troops without funding if Congress can’t come to an agreement and pass a bill authorizing the second fund by April.

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