Finding Budget Stability

The use of overseas contingency operations funds to meet non-war needs hinders effective planning and budgetary discipline, former Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale said Monday. As OCO funding is not subject to binding budget caps, it has been increasingly used to fund non-war needs, said Hale, now a Booz Allen Hamilton fellow, during a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., while introducing a paper on the same topic. But unlike base budget requests, OCO requests do not include a multi-year plan that guide the funding. “DoD tries to do long-term planning to have a consistent five-year plan so you don’t buy a bunch of stuff you can’t support in the out years,” Hale said. “OCO is a one-year budget, that’s the best you can do. It’s hard enough to plan war-time needs one year in advance. If you start putting large amounts of the base budget in OCO, you lose all of that consistent planning.” The lack of competition with other funding initiatives within OCO also erodes budgetary discipline, Hale said.

Transitioning non-war costs—which could amount to between $20 to $30 billion a year depending on how wartime operations is defined—back to the base budget would be the ideal solution to protect the use of OCO funds to meet the needs of warfighters, but it is not practical in the current political environment, Hale argued. Instead, according to Hale’s paper, the next administration should avoid funding any new, non-war activities with OCO funds and, where feasible, move some non-war initiatives, including the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund and European Reassurance Initiative, back to the base budget. But Hale said finding a predictable and reasonable level of funding for federal agencies will be the most important financial issue the next administration will face, and that effort will require much larger compromises. “And the only way to do that, in my view, is a long-term, broad budget deal, one that gets us beyond looking at just defense and non-defense, but includes mandatory spending—social security, Medicare—and revenues, and considers all of those in the context of the deficit,” Hale said. Hale said he is hopeful, but not quite optimistic, that a new administration will be able to broker such a deal. (See also: Report: OCO Uncertainty is Dangerous.)