Jun 26 2019
It is one of Congress’s main duties – arguably, its most important duty – to provide for the common defense.
And that sometimes means providing extra funds for unforeseen costs and emergencies in times of war.
Troops might run out of equipment or munitions, or might need to be transported through war zones… and it is of the utmost importance that they have what they need, and can get where they need, to fight for our country and protect us from our most pressing threats.
In the past, Congress provided emergency supplemental funding for these costs. If it didn’t appropriate enough to begin with, or if some of these unforeseen costs arose, Congress would fill the gap and adjust the following year’s base budget to account for them.
In other words, Congress was doing its job, and doing it in a fiscally responsible manner.
But after the September 11th attacks, something changed.
In 2001, the Bush Administration created a fund called the “Global War on Terrorism” account… separate from the base budget.
From then on, what was once emergency spending for war-fighting gaps became a general fund that Congress has used for military spending, primarily for operations in the Middle East. Year after year, Congress has anticipated this spending; and year after year, it has failed to integrate it into the baseline budget.
When the Obama administration took over, they changed the name from GWOT to the “Overseas Contingency Operations”, or OCO, account but left the fundamental practice in place. And when the Budget Control Act was passed in 2011, President Obama requested OCO to be exempted from the its defense spending limits.
That practice has continued to this day, such that these funds are still exempt from those limits.
What has been the result of this trajectory?
OCO has morphed into an unaccountable slush fund for the Pentagon – insulated from scrutiny and unchecked by budget caps.
It no longer funds unforeseen expenses, and no one pretends otherwise. Instead, administrations from both parties have continued to ask for billions of these dollars each year – outside the budget process – for predictable, ongoing activities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
And Congress has continually enabled them, perpetuating this broken, unaccountable system of spending.
Since 2001, Congress has appropriated about $2 trillion dollars in total for these funds, accounting for 17% of of defense spending in that time… With each dollar adding to our rising debt.
This is not responsible budgeting, oversight, or governance. And it must not continue.
In addition to mending this broken, irresponsible method of financing, it’s far past time that we reassess the operations towards which this money is largely going.
We’ve now been in Afghanistan for 18 years, and in Iraq for 16 years. We have deposed Saddam Hussein, and we’ve killed Osama bin Laden.
We have accomplished much of what we set out to do… but we’ve also been pulled into nation-building thousands of miles away, causing serious harm to those countries and our own credibility in the process.
Yet these wars drag on and on, with no end in sight.
And unfortunately, the bill before us, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, maintains the broken status quo for OCO, authorizing another $75 billion dollars – a $7 billion increase from last year.
And it perpetuates the misguided strategy we’ve been undertaking in the Middle East since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It continues funding – in dollars, weapons, and people – missions that have no clear end goal, for problems that were never ours in the first place.
For example, it authorizes almost $5 billion for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund. And it calls for a stabilization strategy in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya.
But in addition to these dubious nation-building investments that lack an overall strategy, there is a still deeper problem. Congress never authorized military engagement in four out of six of these countries to begin with.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution unequivocally states that Congress shall have the power to declare war – not the President, not the Pentagon, not someone else in the Executive branch, but Congress.
Regardless of whether engagement in a particular country is a worthy foreign policy goal, we cannot escape this point. The Founders could not have been clearer: the executive branch must have authorization from Congress to go to war.
And they designed it in this way precisely because they understood what is at stake in going to war. It is not only our precious financial resources on the line, but our most precious human resources – the brave men and women who lay down their lives to protect us.
So they intended these decisions to be debated with the utmost care and consideration – in front of the American people, by their elected, accountable representatives.
For these same reasons, it is just as much Congress’s duty to take an active role in prudently overseeing the operations that it has authorized and denying funds to those it has not.
Unfortunately, this NDAA largely falls short here, too.
Because first, instead of perpetuating these indefinite wars, it ought to actively prepare a strategy to phase out our engagement in the Middle East– particularly for authorizations of force that have lasted for almost 20 years.
And second, for any remaining authorizations, it ought to aim for using our resources and personnel far more efficiently than the status quo.
Meanwhile, the world has not been static since the beginning of the war on terror. Our country is facing new threats.
The National Defense Strategy laid out by President Trump and the Administration does refocus our efforts on stemming the threats posed by Russian and China, and this NDAA does reflect some of that strategy by addressing some of our most immediate needs to counter them.
For instance, it reaffirms defense commitments in the Indo-Pacific and in the Baltic states, as well as information-gathering on technical and nuclear capbablities for both countries. And it also prioritizes the Arctic region, which both Russia and China are seeking to leverage.
But there are other threats that this NDAA fails to address… namely, our threats in the Western hemisphere. In fact, it lacks a comprehensive defense strategy or plan for the Western hemisphere entirely.
It is by no means prudent to ignore our neighbors to the south, especially given the rampant instability throughout the region caused by the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Indeed, if we fail to secure our borders from the immediate threats we face in the Western hemisphere it will be impossible to truly provide for the common defense.
Mr. President, we ought to reject the status quo and the failures of this bill.
What we should be doing is drawing down our OCO account and integrating this spending into the $642.5 billion baseline defense budget.
We should be having a real debate over whether or not we should continue to be entrenched in the Middle East.
And we should be adjusting our defense strategy – and the dollars behind them – to address the most pressing threats we face today.
These matters are some of the most important decisions that we make in this body. And we should take the time to get them right: they merit debate over the course of months, not days or weeks.
And they merit not just the participation of the Armed Services committee members, but the active participation – and the utmost care and diligence – of all 535 Members of Congress, who have taken an oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
It’s about time Congress exercised its most solemn duty of prudently budgeting and strategizing to protect the American people. Providing for the common defense demands no less.
I yield the floor.