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An Answer To The Question: Why Do We Always Have Money For War?

“It’s basically crack cocaine for the Pentagon,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who worked on defense budgets during the Clinton administration.

As with most David Dayen stories, this is dense -- but fascinating. Now we know why there's always, always, ALWAYS enough money for war: They hide it in the budget! Via Salon:

As budget votes get going this week, keep an eye on the three most magical letters in Washington: OCO. In an era where so many politicians harp on “removing the burden of debt from our children,” OCO – which stands for Overseas Contingency Operations – represents an escape hatch. Put money into OCO and it doesn’t count as spent, at least not against the constraints Congress has shackled itself with for four years. It’s a great deal – as long as you’re part of the military.

“It’s basically crack cocaine for the Pentagon,” said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University who worked on defense budgets at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. “It gives you a flexibility that most domestic discretionary agencies would kill for.”

OCO has created a double standard for D.C.’s insistent deficit conversation. Domestic spending must be held down, without gimmicks, games or tricks. But you can keep the military base budget static, load up the OCO, and use that money on virtually anything the Pentagon does. Congressional Republicans’ OCO end-around in this budget resolution, attempting to please deficit hawks and war hawks at the same time, borders on the absurd. But everyone is guilty of riding the OCO train – the armed services, the State Department, even the White House.

The development of OCO represents a new mechanism for funding American wars since 9/11, another gift handed out by the George W. Bush Administration. “There’s no prior instance of such a thing in American military practice,” said Gordon Adams.

Previous wars were funded first with a supplemental spending bill, outside of the budget cycle, usually for 1-2 years. Congress could put restrictions on the supplemental, like the scope of the spending, or reporting requirements. If the war continued, the Defense Department would fold the cost of maintaining operations into the overall budget. Once you’re in a war for a couple years, you can pretty well determine how much it costs to keep it going.


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Afghanistan and Iraq changed all that. The Bush White House just requested one supplemental after another, claiming it was easier to not plan within the base budget (not planning was a core competency of the Rumsfeld-era Defense Department). It also became easier to get the “emergency” money, amid demagoguery about supporting troops in harm’s way. “Nobody ever cut a war supplemental,” said Gordon Adams. “It’s the aphrodisiac of the budgetary process.”

Over time, the Pentagon started to include things in supplemental requests like ordering an F-15, when no F-15s were shot down in Iraq or Afghanistan. All the money was fungible, able to be moved inside or outside the supplemental budget. You could call it a slush fund or an off-balance-sheet vehicle, but it enabled regular military spending to grow without scrutiny.

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