The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense has condemned the Pentagon for its “unacceptable and unsustainable” transparency with Congress over the last several funding cycles, including pushing back on calls for greater budget flexibility amid the department’s reprogramming of funds for border wall construction.

Appropriators are also considering eliminating the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account as a means of circumventing certain budget caps, according to a copy of the panel’s report on its fiscal year 2021 defending spending bill.

“The Department of Defense has benefited from large budget increases since fiscal year 2017, and this budgetary growth has been accompanied by a decline in transparency and cooperation with Congress. When coupled with the Department’s disturbing actions over the past two years to fund the border wall, the contravention of the constitutional authority of the United States Congress has now become habitual. The committee finds this to be both unacceptable and unsustainable,” lawmakers wrote in the report.

HAC-D approved its $694.6 billion FY ‘21 defense spending bill earlier this week, which includes $758 million to assist industrial base suppliers affected by the pandemic and details to cover 91 F-35s, 12 more than was included in the president’s budget request and providing $22.3 billion for Navy shipbuilding, $2.4 billion above the request (Defense Daily, July 8). 

A full committee mark-up hearing for the bill is scheduled for next Tuesday.

The panel specifically points to DoD’s reprogramming of nearly $10 billion over the last two years toward border wall construction, calling it a “mismatch between [DoD’s] stated priorities and its fiscal actions.”

“Due to what has become an annual occurrence for the department to transfer funding and circumvent its use for purposes other than what the funding was appropriated for, the committee’s skepticism about the defense budget has grown,” lawmakers wrote. “Department leadership has claimed that three to five percent annual real growth in the defense budget is necessary to support the National Defense Strategy while transferring nearly $10,000,000,000 for non-defense activities not enumerated within the National Defense Strategy.”

HAC-D’s bill recommends more than halving the $4 billion in general reprogramming authority and $2 billion in overseas contingency operations special authority, advising a maximum reprogramming amount of $1.9 billion as opposed to the White House’s request for $9.5 billion (Defense Daily, July 7). 

“The committee condemns these decisions, as well as repeated requests for more flexibility within the budget structure and reprogramming authorities to increase the ability of the Department of Defense to realign funding among different activities, with or without seeking prior congressional approval,” lawmakers wrote. “The granting of additional budget flexibility to the Department is based on the presumption that a state of trust and comity exists between the legislative and executive branches regarding the proper use of appropriated funds. This presumption presently is false.”

Lawmakers also call on DoD to stop requesting funding for the OCO account and instead seek a return to supplemental bills to cover overseas operations.

The use of the OCO account to cover areas not related to military campaigns has come under scrutiny in recent years, while the report notes that the department requested $16 billion in the account this year with plans for $20 billion in FY ‘22 and ‘22 followed by $10 billion in FY ‘24 and ‘25. 

“With the possibility of significantly fewer deployed American servicemembers in Afghanistan combined with more training exercises and less contingencies, activities funded in the past by OCO could very well be supported within base accounts in the future,” the panel wrote in its report. “The OCO experiment has been an abject failure and has given the Department a budgetary relief valve that has allowed it to avoid making difficult decisions.”