House Votes For and Against Using War Money for Other Programs

By John M. Donnelly, CQ Roll Call

The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday against defense budgets that tap war accounts for other military programs—then voted twice for just such a budget.

The seeming contradiction occurred during debate on the $602.2 billion defense authorization bill (HR 4909).

First, the House unanimously adopted a bipartisan amendment that would dictate how the Defense secretary must write budget requests. It was adopted by voice vote as part of a package of uncontroversial amendments. The Pentagon must use in its budgets criteria set by the Office of Management and Budget spelling out what kind of programs can be funded using Overseas Contingency Operations accounts—and what kind of programs cannot use such war money.

The amendment’s sponsors were Republicans Mick Mulvaney and Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Democrats Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Barbara Lee of California.

The amendment only dictates what the Defense secretary must consider in formulating budgets, not what he must submit to Congress. And it does not mandate what Congress can or cannot do in response to any budget request.

Still, the proposal’s smooth adoption was an unmistakable repudiation of the long-running pattern of tapping war funds to cover expenses in the Pentagon’s base budget.

Unlike the core budget, the war budget is not capped by the budget law (PL 112-25). In recent years, the war budget has become a safety valve for expenses that can’t be covered by limited core budgets. Consequently, the Pentagon has requested billions of dollars in the war category that by all accounts properly belong in the so-called base budget. Congress has complied with the maneuvers and has often added billions of dollars for its own priorities to the overseas account.

“It’s past time to do away with the slush fund entirely,” Mulvaney said, referring to what he has called the misuse of overseas accounts, in a statement Thursday with the amendment’s other cosponsors that trumpeted House adoption of their amendment.

“If the government values something, it should find a way to pay for it in a forthright fashion instead of filtering money through war funding as a way of getting around the budget caps,” Sanford said.

Discordant notes

However, Mulvaney, Sanford and scores of other House members struck a different note in two other votes.

Mulvaney and Sanford joined 275 other members in voting to pass the underlying authorization bill, which proposes that about $23 billion of the nearly $59 billion war fund be used for programs not directly tied to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond.

The Pentagon had requested using $5 billion of the war budget for base programs. But House Armed Services upped the ante—recommending that an additional $18 billion be shifted in this way so as to bolster the defense budget. They pulled it off without increasing the total size of the war budget by using funds that had been slated to cover nearly half a year’s combat expenses.

The war total will still go up next spring, when the funds allocated for combat dry up. But for now, the total would stay at $59 billion under the House Armed Services plan.

The programs receiving the $18 billion infusion were not requested by the president but were advocated by the military service chiefs. The biggest beneficiaries were procurement programs for next-generation fighter jets, warplanes and other equipment.

The same House that had approved the Mulvaney-Sanford-Lee-Van Hollen stricture on spending delivered another discordant note on a separate amendment.

In this one, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison had proposed shifting $9.4 billion of the war money that the bill would divert for other defense purposes, such as new F-35 fighter jets, back to paying for combat operations—the place the president had wanted it and the place the amendment by Mulvaney and company had said it should be.

The House defeated, 132-289, Ellison’s attempt to use war money for warfare.

Ellison said on the House floor Wednesday that the only call he got in opposition to his proposal was from Boeing Co., one of the Pentagon’s major contractors.

Lee and Van Hollen, two authors of the proposal to set strict criteria on the use of war funds, voted for Ellison’s amendment. They also voted against the underlying bill.

By contrast, Mulvaney and Sanford, despite their hardline stance in favor of using war money only for overseas campaigns, seemed to come down in favor of tapping billions of those war monies for unrequested programs by voting against Ellison’s amendment and for the authorization measure.

They were not alone. Probably scores of House members, mostly Republicans, cast a voice vote in favor of strict budgeting and then cast two roll call votes to bend the rules by $18 billion. The exact number of those who seemed to have it both ways is unknowable, because the voice votes are not counted. And, except for Mulvaney and Sanford, their names are also unknown.

“It appears that the House is trying to have it both ways when it comes to OCO funding,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, using an acronym for overseas contingency operations. “They want the Defense Secretary to apply strict criteria to ensure war funding is really for the wars, but they are explicitly authorizing the use of war funding for non-war expenses.”

Sanford said through a spokeswoman that he opposed the Ellison amendment because it “simply moves money around within OCO, prioritizing one set of issues above another.”

However, even proponents of using war budgets for base-budget programs concede that the base budget projects are only located in the war account as a matter of expedience, not because they pertain to battle.

As for Sanford’s vote in favor of the underlying bill, the spokeswoman said that, “within a 1,300 page bill, there are only so many battles that can be fought. And in this case, he was focusing on the larger picture of funding the military, which he believes is a core function of government.”

Mulvaney had not responded by press time to repeated requests for comment.

Outlook for War Budget Unclear

It remains to be seen how many billions in war funds will be used for base-budget purposes once the final defense measures are cleared.

The Senate Armed Services defense authorization bill (S 2943), which hits that chamber’s floor in the coming week, does not mirror the House’s action on war funds.

The actual money is found in the appropriations bills. The House Appropriations Committee’s Pentagon spending bill for fiscal 2017 (HR 5293) would shift about $15.7 billion from war accounts to core budget programs, including many of the same ones endorsed by House Armed Services.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense plans to mark up its money bill on May 24. Whether it will mirror Senate Armed Services on the issue is “to be determined,” said Steve Daines, R-Mont., a member of the panel, in a brief interview Thursday.

Rep. Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana, the top Democrat on the House’s Defense money panel, predicted at the committee’s May 17 markup that the Senate’s Defense spending bill will reflect the Senate Armed Services approach and not divert more than a few billion of war funds for other programs.