Faced with a shrinking and automatically capped military budget in 2016, the Republican majority on the House Budget Committee wants to get around the spending cap by using the Overseas Contingency Operations fund -- and raising it from $51 billion to $94 billion. The fund, often referred to as the war fund, is an addition to the regular defense budget and is set aside to deal with overseas conflicts, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in which U.S. involvement continues despite ending officially in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
In recent years, the war fund, which is exempt from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, has been tapped to compensate for reductions in the Pentagon budget. Rather than cut an aircraft carrier or fleet of aircraft, for example, the Armed Services committees of both the House and the Senate would turn to the war fund to keep them operational for another fiscal year.
The war fund suggestion is contained in the 2016 "Balanced Budget" report (text here), delivered by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., chairman of the Budget Committee. The report suggested $5.5 trillion in cuts to the federal budget over 10 years. The only notable increase is for the war fund.
“In effect, the House Budget Committee is proposing to have their fiscal discipline and eat their defense increase at the same time,” Gordon Adams, a senior White House budget official for national security under President Bill Clinton, told Foreign Policy. “If this is responsible governing, Congress-style, the House Budget Committee has failed the test.”
The war fund measure has critics among prominent Republicans too. Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would be a gimmick, and no substitute for increased defense spending as part of the actual budget.
McCain condemned the use of the war fund to make up for a smaller defense budget, which is currently capped at $523 billion in 2016, taking a swipe at Democrats and fellow Republicans who are committed to keeping the defense budget at that level. "It says that there is a number of people who don't agree that our national security is our first priority," McCain said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also says he wants higher military spending, and was part of a group of 70 Republicans who said they would not support a budget that did not go beyond the current spending caps on defense.
While sequestration is set to continue through to 2021, the House Budget Committee has projected that the war fund will be reduced to $27 billion in 2017 and stay at that level until 2021 before disappearing altogether in 2022, which is incidentally the year that sequestration ends.