Members of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D) took the opportunity May 1 to make sure senior Pentagon officials knew exactly how they felt about the inclusion of $164 billion worth of overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding in the fiscal year 2020 presidential budget request.

HAC-D Chairman Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) got straight to the point in his opening remarks Wednesday in a hearing to discuss the Defense Department’s FY ’20 budget request with leaders including Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and Acting Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist.

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Aerial of the Pentagon, the Department of Defense headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington DC, with I-395 freeway on the left, and the Air Force Memorial up middle.

He critiqued the request for $66 billion in traditional OCO funds and $98 billion in “OCO-for-base” dollars, and that that strategy is projected to continue in fiscal year 2021 as a way to avoid the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

“OCO for base is not a new concept, but the amounts requested in the budget are staggeringly out of proportion with prior efforts to avoid the caps,” he said.

He noted that in fiscal year 2022 – after the Budget Control Act caps are slated to sunset – OCO-for-base funding “disappears” from the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) documents and traditional OCO funding “miraculously shrinks” to $20 billion. “People’s cynicism about this approach can be understood,” he said.

Visclosky laid out the numerous amounts requested by the department for fiscal year 2020, to include the $576 billion in base funding, the large OCO request, and about $11 billion in unfunded requirements and priorities requested by the services and combatant commands.

“Even the FY ’20 budget request recognizes that the funding increases of this magnitude are unsustainable and slows the rate of growth across future years,” he said. “The department claims that it will be able to prioritize modernization by relying on savings, reforms and efficiencies that have been notoriously difficult to achieve in the past.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said she is “concerned by the shortsightedness of shifting nearly $100 billion into OCO accounts” and stated that the OCO-for-base strategy was “fiscally responsible” as costs to base will increase in future spending bills as service members receive raises and eventual pensions.

“Our servicemembers deserve the stability and to know they will be taken care of,” she said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said the OCO request “is not going to stand.”

“I’ve been in enough budget negotiations to know that that’s all a budget is, is the opening round of a negotiation,” he said. “But this is more unrealistic than most initial positions to negotiate from.”

He lamented that Congress will likely wait until the last minute to reach a budget agreement, but noted that while it is the legislative branch’s role to build the budget, the administration and congressional leadership must also participate.

“To wait until the last minute [to reach a budget agreement] – which I suspect is where we’re headed – is a mistake and a disservice to you,” he said. “We should be better in governing than that.”

The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up the fiscal year 2020 Defense Department budget request May 15, Ranking Member Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) revealed during the hearing.