As expected, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to fund part of her Medicare-for-All program by reducing the Pentagon’s near-record budget has begun to draw fire. One of the first shots was taken by Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the publication Breaking Defense.
To understand the debate over Warren’s proposal it is first necessary to understand what she is proposing to cut. The Warren plan would eliminate the Pentagon’s war budget, known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO. The account was originally justified as a way to fund the initial stages of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had not been planned in the Department’s initial budgets. But for years it has been used as a slush fund to pay for tens of billions of dollars-worth of items that have nothing to do with fighting current conflicts. The reason? Because the Pentagon’s regular budget has been capped under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), while the OCO account has not. Putting money into OCO to pay for non-war items is an evasive maneuver designed to thwart the intent of the BCA to control the deficit.
Contrary to the cries of the Pentagon and its allies in the Washington defense establishment, the Pentagon has done quite well under the BCA caps, in part due to regular deals that have increased the level of the caps themselves and in part due to the abuse of OCO. As the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force has noted, the Pentagon will actually receive $1 trillion more during the decade covered by the BCA than it did in the ten years prior, when the Iraq and Afghan wars were at their peak.
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