House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

House Move to ‘Repurpose’ Overseas War Funding Is Risky, Critics Say

The plan would shift $18 billion from overseas contingency operations to the Pentagon’s base budget.

A maneuver by the House Armed Services Committee to “repurpose” funds for military operations overseas to pay for weapons systems and training is a likely bone of contention as Congress moves to consider the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

The bill, H.R. 4904, cleared the House panel April 28 on a 60-2 vote. It would move $18 billion from the overseas contingency operations fund to the Pentagon’s base budget while staying under the budget caps lawmakers and the Obama administration established last fall when they worked out a two-year budget deal.

The plan would fund overseas contingency operations at $35.7 billion until April 2017, at which time a new president would likely have to push for emergency supplemental funding to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the fight against ISIS.

"In some ways, this bill’s passage is more important than ever, not only because the world is more dangerous and complex, but also because billions in defense cuts have taken their toll on our readiness, our personnel, our equipment, and America’s standing in the world,” said Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, in a statement, adding that his approach aligns with the House Budget Committee’s budget resolution of $574 billion for national defense base requirements.

 But within days Thornberry heard resistance from his Senate counterpart, his panel’s ranking member and Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., lauded the panel’s bipartisan approach but rejected the notion that repurposing such funds had a precedent. “If we continue down the route that this bill goes down, which has the OCO running out about halfway through the year, we are counting on a supplemental. If this is the environment versus the environment before, it is a much, much more risky proposition.”

Carter, at a hearing before the House panel acted, warned that such an approach would prolong congressional debate and discourage troops overseas. While traveling in Europe on May 2, he voiced objections to a reporter for Breaking Defense, saying, “The proposal is to take the money out of the wartime funding account during wartime . . . That is objectionable on the face of it.”

Thornberry replied in a statement saying, “What’s objectionable is deploying troops who aren’t fully trained, whose equipment is worn out, and who didn’t get the resources they needed back home to be ready to face our enemies overseas. What’s objectionable is cutting the military well below levels anyone thinks is wise, denying our troops their pay raise for three years in a row, forcing them to live in crumbling barracks or work in hangars that have literally been condemned. I am determined to turn our readiness crisis around, even if I have to do it over the secretary’s objections."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., plans a different approach, a staffer told Government Executive. The Senate panel’s subcommittees on Monday began a week-long series of hearings on its version of the NDAA. (The current House schedule for floor action this week does not include the NDAA.)

Former Pentagon controller Robert Hale, in an interview with Government Executive, said he shares the concerns voiced by Thornberry’s critics. Hale, who was undersecretary of Defense and controller from 2009-2014, said that while the Thornberry plan “could be made to work, supplementals are hard, and the new administration will have a lot on its plate,” he said in an interview Thursday.

“It will take them a while to get through the details in the spring, then it will take a while for Congress to review the supplemental, which typically attracts extraneous riders,” said Hale, who is now a fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton. “As with all must-pass bills, there will be a long congressional debate, so we’d get the $18 billion back quite late, in June or July.”

That, Hale said, would cause Pentagon planners to slow other activities such as peacetime training to protect the high-priority wartime funding. “They would find it somewhere so they don’t risk going over the totals. But they would cut back on spending, and there will be disruptions in the short term,” he said.

In the long term, one-year moves “make it hard to plan and generate out-year costs,” Hale added. “I agree that defense could use some new resources. The long-term solution is a major budget deal, one that focuses entirely on discretionary and nondiscretionary spending, that broadens the debate to entitlements and the deficit over 10 years. We need a big budget deal” like several presidents in the past have negotiated.

Hale predicted that the White House would soon issue its statement of administration priorities and likely oppose Thornberry’s plan to repurpose the OCO funds, though President Obama may not threaten a veto as he did last year, he said.

“Because we’re on such a short time frame, with the conventions, the August recess, and the campaigns in September,” Hale said, “there’s a good chance we’ll be facing a continuing resolution and, I hope, a lame-duck session deal. I hope they don’t leave it for the next administration.”