WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has gone loco over OCO, America's war-fighting spending account.
Formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, OCO has become a political pressure point that is threatening to stall passage of a more than $610 billion bill that funds the military and other national security programs.
The Republican-backed defense policy and spending bills before Congress give President Barack Obama all the money he has requested for defense and they abide by spending caps Congress imposed on itself a few years ago.
The OCO account, which pays for the Afghan and Iraq wars, is exempt from congressional spending caps enacted to reduce government deficits. It grew from about $19 billion in 2002 to $187 billion in fiscal 2008 and is slated to be around $90 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.
President Barack Obama has threatened to veto spending bills that lock in the spending caps going forward. He says he won't accept fixes to the defense budgeting problem that don't also address money spent on domestic programs.
WHY SHOULD THE AMERICAN TAXPAYER CARE ABOUT OCO?
U.S. defense officials don't want lawmakers to increase defense spending by putting the money in the OCO account, which is funded year to year and is separate from the core defense budget. They say the Pentagon can't embark on long-term weapons projects, for instance, if the money they get one year evaporates the next. They would rather see the money in the core budget for defense, but that would require lifting the spending cap. So, for now, they say they'll take it any way they can get it.
WHAT DO REPUBLICANS SAY?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Wednesday accused Democrats of holding money for American service men and women hostage to efforts to increase non-defense spending.
"If Democratic leaders are really this worried about fattening up the IRS or adding a new coat of paint to their congressional offices, we can have that discussion, but let's leave our troops out of it," McConnell said.
The Republicans have upped the ante, saying they want to tack a cybersecurity measure to the defense bill. That would make it tougher for the president to use his veto pen, especially in light of the recent massive hacking attack that might have exposed the personal data of about 4 million federal employees.
WHAT DO DEMOCRATS SAY?
Democrats say pouring more money in the OCO account is a budget gimmick. They argue that lawmakers can't choose to break through the spending caps when it comes to defense, but adhere to them when it comes to non-defense domestic spending. They have threatened to block any spending bill, including defense, unless Republicans work with them to modify — or do away with — the unpopular restrictions imposed in 2011.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accused McConnell of uttering fiction.
"We're trying to make sure that we have programs in America that support the middle class, support medical research, that support the FBI, our court system," Reid said. "My friend, the Republican leader, seems to only care about the military."
On Wednesday, the four top Democrats in the Senate sent a letter to Republican leaders asking them to end their push to tack the cybersecurity bill to the defense legislation, which the president has said he's going to veto. "This is a pure political ploy that does nothing to advance America's national security," they wrote.
Democrats are likely to let the defense policy bill pass, but will block the next round of defense spending bills that actually appropriate the money to the Pentagon and other agencies. That would keep the bills stalled on Capitol Hill with lawmakers' August recess looming — not to mention the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That's the deadline to keep the government operating.