With Billions for Back-Door Slush Fund, Military Dodges Austerity in House Budget

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With Billions for Back-Door Slush Fund, Military Dodges Austerity in House Budget

'Will we see defense spending with no real limits in sight while we have limits on domestic spending for education and health care and infrastructure?'

U.S. Marines at military exercise in Pohang, South Korea April 2013. (Photo: MC1 Elisandro Diaz/Public Domain)

U.S. Marines at military exercise in Pohang, South Korea April 2013. (Photo: MC1 Elisandro Diaz/Public Domain)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday narrowly passed a $612 billion war spending bill, relying on a back-door slush fund to dodge the austerity cuts that are gutting domestic programs from education to health care.

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed 269 to 151, largely along party lines. The roll call can be viewed here.

The budget circumvents cuts passed in 2011, known as "sequestration," by shifting $89 billion into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) Fund, which was first created in 2001 as an "emergency" fund for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The OCO was supposed to temporary but has since become a permanent fixture that allows the military to sidestep cuts—and maintain seemingly limitless war spending.

Many Democrats voted against the bill—and President Barack Obama threatened to veto it—because of its reliance on the OCO to circumvent budget sequestration. "We will not let defense out from under the budget caps and keep everything else under it," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Thursday.

However, historically Democrats have also consistently pressed for historically high levels of military funding, and the total amount of $612 billion is, in fact, in line with what the Obama administration requested for the 2016 budget. Furthermore, Obama's initial proposal had called for nearly $51 billion to be placed in the OCO.

Some Republicans signaled they believe military spending should be limitless. "Whatever our troops need to get the job done, they should get it, and the House has acted to provide just that," said John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Analysts say this year's budget fight brings a critical question to the fore when it comes to Pentagon funding: Is the OCO slush fund here to stay?

Lindsay Koshgarian, research director for National Priorities Project, told Common Dreams, "This seems to be a turning point, where either we will get in a pattern of accepting a defense slush fund as as we go forward with caps or we won't. Will we see defense spending with no real limits in sight while we have limits on domestic spending for education and health care and infrastructure?"

In addition to high levels of military funding, the bill also includes a provision that would make it more difficult for the Obama administration to transfer prisoners from Guantánamo Bay and would present another roadblock to closing the infamous facility.

The Senate version, which passed the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, also relies on the OCO war chest to maintain high levels of funding. The legislation is next headed to the appropriations process, and it will be months until the fate of the NDAA is known.

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