OCO Should Be Eliminated; War Spending Should Be Included in the Base Pentagon Budget
As the war in Afghanistan is being wound down, there is less and less justification for having an account for "Overseas and Contingency Operations" separate from the base Pentagon budget.
1. War spending is predictable - as predictable as other spending - and is becoming more so. The main cost in OCO currently is deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. It's possible for the Administration and Congress to plan for how many U.S. troops - if any - will be deployed to Afghanistan until 2014 and beyond, and the cost of this should be transparently accounted for.
2. There is no clear line that distinguishes "war costs" from costs in the base Pentagon budget.
3. The fact that there is no clear line that distinguishes war costs from costs in the base Pentagon budget, the fact that OCO was not capped by the Budget Control Act, and the fact that the initial outyear numbers for OCO have been fake, together have been an invitation for abuse. As the fake initial OCO numbers have been replaced by real numbers in recent years, defense appropriators have used the fake savings to protect the base Pentagon budget from agreed cuts by moving expenditures from the base Pentagon budget into the OCO budget.
4. Different choices about future troop levels in Afghanistan have real cost implications that should be taken into account as Congress debates the budget, particularly at a time when painful cuts to domestic spending are being considered, such as cuts to WIC and Head Start. President Obama has announced that troop levels in Afghanistan will be cut in half in the next year, but the pace of withdrawals has not been announced. It matters. If 30,000 troops were withdrawn in the next few months, using the crude estimate of a billion dollars per thousand troops per year, that would save roughly $30 billion this year compared to the scenario in which they were all withdrawn at the end of the year. A "steady pace" withdrawal of 30,000 troops over course of the year - as President Obama previously pledged - would save roughly $15 billion compared to withdrawing 30,000 troops at the end of the year. These costs and savings are on the order of magnitude of the cuts that are being considered to the budget this year under the sequester.