Lawmakers of both parties are running out of patience with the White House’s expansive use of special war funding to pay for US operations abroad, possibly putting aid to Syria at risk.
With US troops in Afghanistan coming home after more than a decade of war, many House Democrats and some Republicans argue it’s time to retire Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding that exploded after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Instead, the State Department’s fiscal year 2015 budget for the first time requests that OCO be used to help Syrian rebels and refugees.
“It’s definitely moving away from war-time spending, which is traditionally what the account is used for,” said a House Democratic aide. “We have concerns that this is basically a slush fund.”
In its budget request, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) says OCO funding “supports our response to ongoing challenges presented by the Syria crisis.”
“OCO funds,” USAID argues, “will enable an ongoing US response to the humanitarian crisis and provide support for the Syrian opposition.”
The USAID budget request calls for $1.255 billion in OCO funding for Syria:
$635 million in International Disaster Assistance for “food assistance, emergency medical care and protection assistance”;
$465 million for Migration and Refugee Assistance;
$125 million in Economic Support Fund aid to “support the opposition,” “provide goods and services to their communities” and "jumpstart local economies"; and
$30 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement assistance to strengthen criminal justice institutions in Syria and the region.
Meanwhile, the State Department has requested $47 million to “transition to operations” in Syria.
“Establishing operations in post-conflict areas creates unique challenges which are best funded with Overseas Contingency Operations funding,” the State Department states in its Congressional Budget Justification. “Establishing operations in Syria will be exceptionally challenging given the need to create all life support systems and to sustain them in a protected compound.”
The breakdown is as follows:
$12.9 million for temporary living and office structure;
$10 million for construction and maintenance of temporary classified processing office space;
$10 million for personnel and material transportation — including $6 million for armored transport;
$7 million for communications and other information technology;
$6 million for management services, danger pay and other benefits; and
$1 million to support personnel in Turkey and Jordan.
The budget also calls for the creation of a $150 million Peacekeeping Response Mechanism to help the United States respond to “future missions in Africa, Syria or other needs around the world.”
The continued use of OCO funding has prompted a backlash, particularly from liberals who want to see the Defense Department slashed. President Barack Obama’s total OCO request for fiscal year 2015 totals $85 billion — $79 billion of which is a placeholder for Department of Defense spending.
House Democrats’ budget, which failed on a 163-261 party-line vote last week, would have eliminated OCO funding starting in 2016. And an OCO-ending amendment from House Appropriations member Barbara Lee, D-Calif. to the Republican budget failed in the Budget Committee on a 15-22 party-line vote, with House Appropriations member Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, voting to end the funding.
“After twelve years of war,” the amendment reads, “military operations are finally winding down in Afghanistan and it is time to end the use of the OCO account.”
And a petition from the liberal MoveOn.org group to terminate OCO funding has attracted more than 15,000 signatures.
Despite voting against the Lee amendment, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., singled out the use of OCO funding in Syria for criticism in the report accompanying his budget blueprint. Budget hawks have raised concerns that OCO funding isn’t subject to budget caps aimed at reducing the deficit.
“The administration’s decision to expand the scope of programs eligible for OCO/GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] funding to include not only the frontline states of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but also Syria, Africa, and other areas of conflict, could lead to potential abuse of the OCO/GWOT designation,” the report reads. “OCO/GWOT was originally intended to fund only extraordinary, and thus temporary, costs of US operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. While this budget fully supports US missions in other conflict areas, it does not recommend expanding OCO’s purpose.”
Ironically, the expansive use of OCO funding is largely of Congress’ own doing.
President Obama first began relying on the mechanism to pay for the “extraordinary, but temporary, costs of the Department of State and USAID in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan,” in his fiscal year 2012 budget. Congress, however, has found it convenient to ignore those restrictions, to avoid mandatory spending caps.
In fiscal year 2012, lawmakers increased foreign operations funding designated as OCO by 52% above the president’s request and included funds for Somalia, Yemen and Kenya, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. And the fiscal year 2013 spending bill included unrequested OCO funds for disaster and refugee assistance, “without language restricting it by country.”
“In each of the last two years,” the October 2013 report states, “Congress has appropriated more OCO funding than requested, and for a broader range of countries activities.”
That lack of fiscal restraint has buoyed foreign aid proponents, some of whom argue that the scope of the crisis in Syria coupled with ill-considered budget caps makes OCO a necessary evil. They expect the president’s war funding request for Syria to survive Congress, the Democratic budget and Ryan’s budget report notwithstanding.
“I don’t think [those concerns are] reflective of the majority of members, and certainly appropriators,” a source in the foreign assistance community told Al-Monitor.