Another Example of Abusing the War Spending Label

President Obama yesterday announced $1 billion for a European Reassurance Initiative to step up U.S. presence and planning in Central and Eastern Europe partially in response to Russia's actions in Ukraine. The idea itself may have merit, but what certainly does not is the source of the funding: war spending. The Administration plans to include this new initiative as part of its FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request, a category that is intended to be used for spending directly related to operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Administration's request would involve increased funding for bolstered training and rotational presence in Europe and assisting allies. These type of activities would seem to be clearly part of normal defense activities, even ignoring the fact that the spending would be taking place in an area where the U.S. is not involved in any war. Further, the Pentagon's budget request states that one of its central goals is to "build security globally," which involves working more closely with European allies. It is not clear whether the Administration sees these new initaitives as a temporary boost or as part of larger and more permanent exercises with our allies. A more permanent presence funded through the OCO would be particularly worrisome. 

Using the OCO request for operations that are clearly part of the Pentagon's normal budget is simply a way to avoid the defense spending caps. As the use of this gimmick has grown, it has become clear that lawmakers must take steps to prevent the abuse of OCO. The House budget resolution report included language opposing the use of the OCO designation for funding that was not war related. A recent amendment adopted during consideration of the House defense authorization bill would codify OMB criteria for OCO funding, limiting its use to "geographic areas in which direct combat operations or combat support operations occur" and spending that is directly or indirecty related to war. The European Reassurance Initiative does not meet these criteria and would seem to fit with DoD long-term strategies outlined in the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) that should be funded through the base DoD budget.

Both this and the effort of Senate appropriators to move portions of the State Department spending into OCO are examples of why policymakers need to tighten the use of war spending or place caps on OCO spending. Otherwise, they risk OCO being used a permanent method of getting around spending caps.