By Kristina Wong - 07/16/14 07:11 PM EDT
Lawmakers appeared gobsmacked Wednesday by a request from the Obama administration for $60 billion in war funding next year, with several accusing the Pentagon of seeking a “slush fund” to use for other purposes.
“The American taxpayer is absolutely frustrated and broke,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.). “I don't know why you need this money, it's just a slush fund anyway.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told lawmakers that the request was $26.7 billion lower than the 2014 request, and “reflects a continued, downward trajectory of war-related spending as we conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan.”
“However, even as the war ends, the Department will continue to seek [funding] to cover the costs of returning, repairing, and replacing equipment until that process is complete, and costs associated with our broader military presence in the Middle East from which we support a number of critical missions in the region, as well as unforeseen contingencies,” he said.
Although Work said it would only cost $11 billion for U.S. troops’ post-2014 missions in Afghanistan, the administration has requested $53.4 billion for related costs.
That would include money to support the Afghan forces and NATO coalition partners, bring home and reset equipment and personnel, “classified support,” and a “vast range of support activities” in the region.
Another $5 billion would go toward the president’s new counterterrorism partnerships fund, and $1 billion to reassure U.S. allies in Europe, given recent Russian moves in Ukraine.
Several lawmakers criticized the request and accused the department of seeking to skirt the budget caps under sequestration.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she was worried that without congressional oversight, "these monies could be spent anywhere overseas."
"It seems this has become yet another slush fund," she said.
Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was a “reasonable request in terms of [being] $20 billion less than last year.”
“[It] fully supports the operations in Afghanistan, and leaves just a little bit of room for us to manage unanticipated contingencies that can arise anywhere in the world,” he said.
Lawmakers demanded more information about the president’s $5 billion counterterrorism fund, which would include $2.5 billion to train and equip foreign military forces, $1.5 billion for a Regional Stabilization Initiative for the Syrian conflict, $500 million for training and equipping of vetted Syrian opposition forces, and another $500 million for crisis response.
"I support the larger strategy for this money, but I'm very, very concerned about its specifics," Duckworth said.
Defense officials acknowledged that some of the $5 billion could be funded through the Department’s base budget, in accounts created for training and equipping foreign militaries, but said they want extra flexibility on how and when to spend the money, as well as to avoid budget caps under sequestration.
“We would like to exceed the caps in these particular authorities ... due to things that are happening right now in the world,” Work said.
“This would allow us to exceed those types of caps that we have on helping countries,” said Michael McCord, the Pentagon’s comptroller.
Other lawmakers expressed concern that authorizing the counterterrorism fund would allow the administration to undertake military actions without enough congressional oversight.
“This country would be in a war in Syria right now had this Congress not objected,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.). “If the president had this authority a year ago, we’d be involved in a war with Syria right now ... Americans are tired of being at war.”
At one point during the hearing, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Calif.), the panel's ranking Democrat, became frustrated with defense officials' lack of details on how the administration planned to train and equip Syrian rebels, warning that members of Congress would not approve the fund without further information.
"We need to do better than 'it's classified so we really can't talk about it,' " he told the defense officials.
Outside Congress, critics of Pentagon spending lambasted the spending request.
“It's clear that the war account continues to be used as a slush fund to pay for Pentagon projects that have nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan or the larger fight against terrorism," said William Hartung, director of the Arms & Security Project for the Center for International Policy.
David Williams, president of Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said the Pentagon should get rid of the war account altogether.
“OCO is nothing more than a slush fund that Congress uses to fund pet programs and projects," Williams said.
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said much of the money the Pentagon is seeking would be used for a variety of other purposes, including “peacetime presence and training operations."
"You start stripping things away and you realize there's a lot in there that's not about Afghanistan,” he said.
— This story was updated at 8:15 p.m.