Experts question GOP’s ISIS-sequester link

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Will automatic spending cuts known as the sequester hamper the U.S. effort against fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

A growing number of congressional Republicans say the spending cuts, set to return next year, will threaten the fight against ISIS.

{mosads}But outside budget experts are skeptical.

“The technical term for that is bulls—,” said Stan Collender, executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP.

Collender and others critical of the ISIS-sequester link say the government can use funding for fighting the war on terrorism to fight ISIS and that those funds fall outside the sequester’s reach.

“They’re just using it as an excuse to raise the defense cap,” Collender said. “The truth is that long before ISIS, the defense community was lobbying to get rid of sequestration, so they’re just taking advantage of what was presented to them, to spin the situation.”

It’s true that the argument that the fight against ISIS is threatened by the sequester is becoming more prevalent.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said on a Kentucky radio show last month, “I don’t think sequestration and increased efforts in Syria, in Iraq are compatible.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Budget and Armed Services panels, discussed ISIS and the sequester in an August appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We have to address as a Congress where the defense budget is right now, because there is a disconnect with sequester from the threats that we face around the world and the resources we are going to need to fight this threat,” she said.

On the Senate floor in September, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) argued he still had questions he wanted answered by the administration about the strategy to defeat ISIS.

“Are the president and congressional leaders willing to find a solution to defense sequestration in order to fulfill the mission if more resources are required? And more resources will be required,” he said.

Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with a supplemental, emergency budget.

“That’s kind of a bogus argument because war-related funding like operations against ISIS comes from emergency supplemental funding not subject to the budget caps,” he said of those saying the ISIS fight will be hampered by sequester cuts.

That emergency funding is known as the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account. The fund has been around since 2001, and some lawmakers have criticized it as a slush fund that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have been able to rely upon.

Gordon Adams, a professor at American University, describes the account as the Pentagon’s “safety valve” and the “magic elixir” both appropriators and the White House like to use to shift around money.

The Pentagon has been using the fund for the ISIS fight.

Under the short-term spending bill Congress passed in September, the administration has $85 billion in the current fiscal year in the account. Funds must be used for more than ISIS, however. It’s also responsible for the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan and would subsidize a proposed counterterrorism fund that would increase the deployment of special operations forces to fight terrorists in places like Syria, Somalia and Libya.

The current authority for the fund expires Dec. 11, an actually allows the administration to spend more than the president wants to on war operations this year.

President Obama’s request for the fund in this fiscal year, which ends in October 2015, is $58.6 billion.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently said the anti-ISIS campaign would require more than that request, however. Adams predicts the administration could ask for $20 billion more after the midterm elections.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is among the lawmakers who have criticized the Obama and Bush administrations for misusing the fund.

“On a bipartisan basis, the Budget Committee has expressed concern that the [OCO budget] has been misused by both this administration and the previous administration. In addition, Congress has generally gone along with using these funds for purposes outside of [OCO requirements],” Ryan said in comments last month.

This year alone, the fund has been used not only for the ISIS fight, but also for the battle against Ebola.

The Pentagon also requested a chunk of the fund to pay for F-35 jets, among other things, said Lindsay Koshgarian, research director at the National Priorities Project, which tracks federal spending.

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “There’s a huge pot of untapped funds there that the Pentagon has at their disposal.”

Koshgarian called arguments that sequestration could threaten the ISIS fight “perplexing.” She said if U.S. operations remain the same, the war could only cost $3 billion per year — a small slice of the OCO.

One GOP congressional aide told The Hill, however, that the OCO doesn’t cover training to strengthen the military and prepare them for war. Therefore, Republicans are arguing for a higher defense cap for readiness purposes.  

“Forces have to be properly trained and equipped before they can conduct successful operations,” one aide said. “That falls under regular DOD funding.”

Another GOP aide asserts that war funding might not to cover everything because of piling costs from ISIS operations.

“The OCO designation does allow for spending on top of the caps, and this could provide some relief. But it’s hard to argue that OCO is likely to be used to fill an at least $200 billion hole in the base budget and the costs arising from the ISIS campaign.”

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he can understand that in order to prepare for overseas operations, “we need to prove our readiness back here.”

At the same time, funding for bombing Iraq or Syria, he said, will be paid for using the war funding.

“I’m not sure one should cry too loudly about the defense cap,” he said. 

Tags Budget Chuck Hagel Defense Department ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Kelly Ayotte Paul Ryan Pentagon Roger Wicker sequester sequestration

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