By September 30, 2021 Congress will have appropriated over $2.1 trillion for the Global War on Terror

May 26, 2020 | by Andrew Lautz | National Taxpayers Union |

“Reforming the OCO Account: A Better Deal for Taxpayers, Watchdogs, and the Military”

“Congress has appropriated trillions of dollars in the past few months to economic and public health measures meant to combat the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Though the U.S. may be far from defeating the virus, there will come a time in the near future when policymakers will have to grapple with the enormous additions they have just made to the federal debt.

As federal lawmakers look to offset recent and future COVID-19 spending, one of the first places they should explore is the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The OCO account, which has allowed the Departments of Defense (DoD) and State to spend above the decade-long discretionary spending caps enacted under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 (and even subsequent increases to BCA caps), has increasingly become a source for “base” DoD spending and for “enduring” costs expected to last beyond the Global War on Terror.

From September 11, 2001 through the end of fiscal year (FY) 2019, Congress appropriated over $2 trillion “in support of the broad U.S. government response to the 9/11 attacks and for other related international affairs activities.” Lawmakers made these appropriations through either the OCO/Global War on Terror (GWOT) designations or the looser emergency spending designation that preceded OCO/GWOT from 2001 through 2008.

However, in recent years an increasing share of OCO/GWOT appropriations are actually dedicated to either “base” requirements that would normally be included in DoD’s regular budget request or “enduring” requirements that are expected to outlast the immediate contingency operations OCO was designed to fund. (Throughout this paper, “base” spending refers to DoD’s annual discretionary budget.)

Executive and legislative branch policymakers share blame here. DoD sought to adhere to statutory budget caps for defense spending in its FY 2020 budget request last year, but reached a wildly unsustainable spending target of $750 billion by pouring $165 billion into its OCO request. Of this $165 billion request, 59 percent ($98 billion) was for base requirements, 21 percent ($35 billion) was for enduring requirements, and an additional four percent ($6 billion) was for the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) – not considered a part of the Global War on Terror. Only 16 percent of the OCO request ($26 billion) was for mission-related costs in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”

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