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Administration Calls for $450 Billion War Funding Cap

Did you know that the federal government expects to spend $450 billion on fighting wars over the next decade? This, despite the removal of all troops fron Iraq, and the transition of combat missions over to the Afghans by 2014, if not a year earlier?

That’s what we can take from the numbers in the President’s FY 2013 budget. There’s a war-fighting fund for “overseas contingency operations” (OCO) that the Administration proposes capping in this document. But instead of capping it at the amount required to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for another year (remember the 2012 budget is already funded on OCO) and support operations thereafter, it keeps $450 billion in that kitty over the next 10 years. This is from the budget document, on page 26:

Leaving OCO funding unconstrained could allow future Administrations and Congresses to use it as a convenient vehicle to evade the fiscal discipline that the BCA [Budget Control Act of 2011] caps require elsewhere in the Budget. With the end of our military presence in Iraq, and as troops continue to draw down in Afghanistan, this Budget proposes a binding cap on OCO spending as well. From 2013 through 2021, the Budget limits OCO appropriations to $450 billion.

The cap would be a maximum, basically $50 billion a year for nine years. Future Administrations could ask for less than that for OCO, but not more. But why so high a cap, as the Afghanistan Study Group asks?

These caveats aside, take another look at the cap itself. The proposal would limit war costs to $450 over the next nine years, an average of $50 billion per year. That might seem like a good deal, until you remember that we have spent $570 billion on the Afghanistan war since 2001. Assuming most of the proposed $450 billion would be for Afghanistan, that would bring the cost of the war to over $1 trillion.

Remember too that the Pentagon has announced plans to transition to local security forces by mid-2013. If the US combat role ends in 2013, what could possibly account for $450 billion in war costs through 2021?

Here’s how the ASG answers that question. First, the role of US troops beyond 2013 in Afghanistan is completely unclear, as is the residual forces expected to remain in the country. The more likely answer is that the OCO fund will be used, as it has been used before, as a slush fund by the Pentagon, to hide non-war costs that they “cut” from the base Pentagon budget. ASG estimates that $7 billion was moved into OCO from the base budget in 2012. I would add that the trigger cuts to defense scheduled for 2013 would come to not that far over $450 billion. So there would be all the more reason to use the OCO money as a slush fund.

There’s no reason for such a large OCO cap unless you’re asking for future defense budgeters to abuse it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen