Congress Should Stop Playing Games With the Pentagon Budget

05/06/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Ever since the Budget Control Act of 2011 placed caps on the Pentagon's base budget, Congress and the Obama administration have been using creative accounting to evade them. But this year's House Armed Services Committee (HASC) version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) set a new standard for budget gimmickry.

For years now, the preferred option for getting around the budget caps has been to stuff the war budget -- formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account -- with items that have nothing to do with any current conflict. This year, the HASC didn't even pretend to limit the OCO account to war-related activities, adding $38 billion to President Obama's already slush-filled proposal.

Padding the war fund is bad budgeting, plain and simple. As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) put it, "The OCO (Overseas Contingency Operations) slush fund is a recipe for budget crisis." Even Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter agrees, noting that:

Current proposals to shoehorn [the Pentagon'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.

To their credit, Rep. Van Hollen and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) took the lead in an effort to eliminate excess OCO spending on military construction during the consideration of the Military Construction/Veteran's Affairs appropriations bill on the House floor. That effort fell short, but they will continue to push for a scaling back of excess OCO funding.

While the OCO shenanigans were the most egregious example of irresponsible budgeting in the HASC bill, they were far from the only one. As usual, members added funding for items that the Pentagon didn't even ask for, in order to pay for a wide array of pet projects that included 12 F-18 E/F Super Hornets and six additional F-35 combat aircraft. As Taxpayers for Common Sense has indicated in its analysis of the HASC bill, these two changes alone added over $2 billion in procurement spending. And they were just the largest items in a long list of indefensible budget add-ons.

It would be one thing if there were some rationale for these additions to the Pentagon budget other than pork barrel politics, but there is not. If HASC members really wanted to make a legitimate contribution to the evolution of U.S. air power assets, they could have reduced the buy of F-35s designated for close-air support in favor of more A-10s, an existing aircraft that does a far better job at that mission. If it survives on the House floor, a successful amendment by Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), a retired Air Force Colonel and former A-10 commander, will keep the A-10 in the force for an additional year, thwarting attempts by the Air Force brass to retire the plane. Keeping A-10s for a longer period while reducing the F-35 buy would be a logical next step.

As for the F-18 E/F, if lawmakers want to add more of these carrier-based aircraft they should pay for them by reducing the number of F-35s allocated for that purpose. Fiscal discipline demands choices, not a "both/and" approach that will bust the budget caps.

The HASC also signed off on a gambit by the Navy that is designed to take pressure off of the shipbuilding budget by putting a costly new generation of ballistic missile submarines in their own "National Sea-based Deterrence Fund." A ship is a ship, and creating a new budget line won't magically create additional funding to pay for the ballistic missile submarine program, which has a total procurement cost of almost $92 billion. Failing to acknowledge this fact is yet another example of fantasy budgeting at its worst.

Thankfully, the HASC's bad decisions are not set in stone. There is still time to reverse them before Congress actually appropriates funds for the Pentagon later this year, and the president approves its handiwork. This time should be used to pare back the OCO slush fund, eliminate irrational add-ons and ditch the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. Then there should be an open and honest debate about whether the caps on Pentagon spending need to be lifted or not.

If the Congress and the president take forceful steps to reduce the Pentagon bureaucracy, eliminate unnecessary weapons systems and assign realistic missions to our armed forces, the roughly half a trillion dollars in Pentagon base budget spending allowed under the caps should be more than enough to provide a robust defense of the United States. It's time for Congress to stop playing games with the Pentagon budget and engage in a serious debate about how much is needed to defend the United States and its allies.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.