Congress to Pentagon: Hand Over the War Budget

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, and Robert Hale Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, and Robert Hale Undersecretary of Defense Comptroller. Susan Walsh/AP

The administration wants to wait to release its war budget, but it might not get its way if some members of Congress have anything to say about it.

Pentagon officials have said that they are holding off on releasing the overseas contingency operations budget—which oversees war funds—until after a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan is signed. If completed, it would determine U.S. military involvement in the country after 2014.

For now, the Pentagon has pegged the war budget—which isn't subjected to congressional budget caps—at about $79 billion as part of its fiscal 2015 budget request. But acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said that figure was a "placeholder."

However, top members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee stressed Thursday that a delay in turning over a concrete request would likely complicate Congress's budget process.

"I think it's impossible for us to go to the floor with a placeholder for $79 billion," Democrat Peter Visclosky of Indiana said, while acknowledging to top Defense officials testifying before the subcommitteee that he is aware that it's probably difficult for the administration to come up with a set of numbers for different possible outcomes.

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen agreed, saying that "it's difficult for us to put a bill together with that question open."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, responding to the New Jersey Republican's comment that the placeholder is a "serious hole" in the budget, said that while military leaders want to remain involved in Afghanistan after 2014, Pentagon officials are trying to not "further complicate an already complicated budget process."

"When we get an enduring presence decision, as soon as we can after that, we will get a formal budget amendment to you for OCO," said Robert Hale, the Pentagon's comptroller. "If that doesn't work with the timing issue, then we're going to have to look at other options, and we are thinking of them now, as to how we proceed if we don't get an enduring presence decision."

Hale acknowledged to Frelinghuysen that he realized his answer is "vague," adding, "At the moment, I think it's about the best I can do."

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