Obama admin politicization reaches the Pentagon

Earlier this week, Politico published a five-page memo written by two high-ranking Department of Defense officials that advised Ash Carter to start coordinating attacks on Republicans with Democrats and the White House. As Austin Wright and Jeremy Herb wrote, the memo comes across as an “intelligence estimate” on various leaders of Congress, advising Carter on how to apply pressure on “discomfort” points. Carter took their advice, at least in part, after publicizing a lengthy “heartburn letter” over what the Pentagon calls a budget gimmick — using a war fund for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (itself a gimmicky, Obama-administration-preferred nomenclature for military counterterrorism operations) to fund more basic military needs.

John wrote about the Republican reaction to this on Tuesday, but the budget mechanism itself deserves some attention, too. It’s true that Republicans sought to use the OCO account to fund basic operations for several months, but the use of the OCO “gimmick” was based on another gimmick proposed by the Obama administration — sequestration. The DoD budget has caps placed on it from the budget-control negotiations between House Republicans and the White House, but the agreement exempts the OCO account from spending limits.

As Michael Cochrane explains in World, the fight exists in the first place because the White House refuses to properly fund the military unless Republicans agree to big increases in domestic spending, too. And the supposed danger to the military from the temporary use of OCO funds is nonsense as well:

The focus of the controversy is the Republican-led House proposal to get around the defense budget caps by using $18 billion from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to fund needed military readiness and modernization improvements. Such a move would fund the OCO account only through the end of April instead of the end of September 2017.

The Pentagon memo calls this move a “gimmick,” and in an Office of Management and Budget memo earlier this year, the Obama administration strongly criticized the approach, saying it would cut off “critical funding for wartime operations.”

But some defense budget experts, while acknowledging the House proposal is a gimmick of sorts, think the risk to troops in combat is low.

Cochrane quotes Heritage Foundation analyst Justin Johnson, who also notes the hypocrisy of fighting against an $18 billion appropriation through OCO while demanding another $100 billion from Congress:

  1. The Pentagon fighting against a budget increase is pretty hypocritical. As the 2016 Index of Military Strength makes clear, all of the military services have been struggling as a result of major budget cuts. Combat readiness levels are very low. The military is at historically small levels. The secretary of defense has been clear that the military needs at least another $100 billion over the next five years. So why “play hardball” and fight against an extra $18 billion this year?
  2. This is a budget gimmick, but the risk to troops in combat is low. No one believes that Congress will actually leave troops in Afghanistan without funding next April. This gimmick isn’t great, but the next presidential administration and the next Congress will have plenty of time to address the spending gap. The gimmick only exists because Republicans are trying to find a way around Democrats who have deliberately linked military funding to unrelated domestic funding. Democrats also don’t have the moral high ground here after actively trying to defund troops in combat just a few years ago.

Oddly, the media has not paid much attention to this fight — but it should, and especially the manner in which the Pentagon and the White House has conducted it. The OCO gimmick — and yes, it’s fair to call it that — exists only because of the Obama administration’s refusal to cut spending and its use of the military to fend off long-needed trimming of the federal bureaucracy from Republican majorities in Congress. As I write in my column for The Fiscal Times this week, the naked partisanship of administration officials has finally invaded the national security apparatus — and that should worry everyone, especially for the precedent it sets:

The Pentagon’s leadership, both civilian and military, can certainly talk to Congress about their concerns over fundraising. Proposing an alliance with Democratic leadership and the White House while leveraging media contacts to go after specific Republicans takes this into a completely new arena of partisan politicization.

Republicans accused the Obama administration of quarterbacking the effort. Senate Armed Forces chair John McCain, who gets a friendly assessment in the McCord/Hedger memo, angrily denounced the White House. “This administration knows no depths they won’t plumb in politicizing defense,” he said in a statement.

Ryan called the memo and its strategy “shameless … for this administration, it’s always politics first, even at the Pentagon.” McCain’s House counterpart Rep. Mac Thornberry, whom the memo accused of “still smarting” from an Obama veto for the FY2016 NDAA, lamented that it was “unfortunate and rather sad that some in the Obama administration spend so much time and effort playing political games, as evidenced by this memo.”

Indeed. It’s all the more cynical given that the memo itself notes that the OCO “gimmick” is actually not all that important. In a footnote, McCord and Hedger note that its inclusion in an authorizing measure “is not dispositive because the ultimate appropriated amount controls the final outcome.” This footnote appears as a further explanation as to how Carter et al can succeed in “capitalizing on [Frelinghuysen’s] discomfort” over the OCO plan.

After watching the FBI and the Department of Justice give Hillary Clinton a pass for her serial mishandling of classified information, perhaps this politicization of national security and defense issues will shock the consciousness of America less. However, it fits into a pattern of partisanship and bare-knuckled political brawling that Barack Obama pledged to end just eight years ago. Instead, it has grown worse – and this memo puts the responsibility for that squarely on the shoulders of Obama’s administration.

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