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Trump pumps up Pentagon war-fighting account in bid to fund defense over domestic programs 

President Trump addresses members of the military during a refueling stop Feb. 28 at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.
President Trump addresses members of the military during a refueling stop Feb. 28 at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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President Trump asked for a massive increase in the Pentagon’s war-fighting account in an attempt to spend more on defense without having to cut a deal with Democrats on domestic programs, even as he promises to end U.S. military entanglements abroad.

Known as the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO, the war-fighting account is excluded from the spending caps set out in the 2011 Budget Control Act because it funds ongoing war efforts such as the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

On Monday, the Trump administration requested $165 billion for the account in the 2020 fiscal year, up from $69 billion this year.

The reason: It’s a backdoor way to increase the defense budget while technically staying within the confines of caps that run for two more years. The result is a brewing battle with Democrats over how much the United States should spend on its military versus domestic priorities.  

“This is a pretty transparent ploy to get around the budget caps and avoid having to give Democrats equal increases on the nondefense side of the budget,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it’s dead on arrival when it gets to the House.”

In previous years, Democrats and Republicans have reached deals to lift the defense budget caps in exchange for increasing nondefense spending. A similar deal is possible this year, but the White House would prefer to increase defense spending without agreeing to any jumps in the budget for discretionary domestic and other nondefense programs.

On Monday, the White House unveiled a budget that sought a $750 billion budget for national defense, a 5 percent increase from the current fiscal year, while requesting cuts on domestic programs long important to Democrats, including Medicaid, food stamps, environmental protection, as well as reductions in foreign aid.

Russell Vought, the acting director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said the administration was looking to break a pattern in Congress of negotiating for more defense spending by agreeing to more discretionary domestic spending.

“They continue to let a paradigm exist in this country that says: For every dollar in defense spending, we’re going to increase nondefense spending by a dollar,” Vought said. “We think we need to break that paradigm. We don’t think that that paradigm allows us to be able to get our fiscal house in order.”

In an op-ed in RealClearPolitics last month, Vought wrote that pursuing this goal by requesting additional defense funds in the OCO account was the “only fiscally responsible option” to meet national security needs while avoiding yet another increase to the spending caps. 

Democrats hit out at the maneuver.

In a statement, Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Trump’s “massive budgetary gimmick to hide the true cost of his defense spending request should outrage everyone who claims to care about fiscal responsibility.”

“In order for us to complete an orderly and responsible fiscal year 2020 appropriations process, Congress and the President must quickly agree on a framework that raises caps for defense and nondefense investments alike,” Lowey said. “By raising the spending caps with parity, we can invest in the American people, grow our economy, create jobs, and protect our nation.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, also criticized the administration’s approach. “I’m worried that the administration is trying to do kind of a shell game by increasing funding for defense by pumping up OCO and then not attending to domestic needs, and that’s going to be the way they’re going to escape,” he said in an interview with Defense News. “I don’t think that’s going to fly.”

Last year, after the government reported a nearly 17 percent jump in the deficit to $779 billion for fiscal 2018 amid a strong economy, Trump asked federal agencies to draw up proposals to slash their spending by 5 percent. The instructions went out to the Pentagon, as well, with a demand by the White House to come up with a $700 billion defense budget.

But Monday’s presidential budget request made it clear that the Trump administration ultimately decided against including cuts to defense spending in those plans and targeted only nonmilitary discretionary funding for reductions.

The increase in the OCO budget essentially shifts expenditures that would normally go into the Pentagon’s “base budget” into the war-fighting account. Previously, when OCO was used in this way, it was done so after a joint decision by the White House and Congress and in much smaller quantities, said Susanna Blume, deputy director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration.

Blume said she thought it would be a non-starter for Democrats.

“I can’t see them agreeing to this mechanism whereby nondefense spending decreases while defense spending increases potentially,” she said. “There is going to have to be some kind of negotiation, some kind of deal. My concern is that you’re looking at potentially a return to the instability that we have seen previously — very long continuing resolutions, threats of shutdowns, actual shutdowns.” 

She added, “It’s shaping up to be a pretty ugly budget season here.”