Biden requests $715B for the Pentagon in his first budget, does away with OCO fund
Stars and Stripes April 9, 2021
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Friday proposed $715 billion for the Pentagon in its 2022 baseline budget, which is a slight increase from this year’s spending plan.
However, Biden’s proposal is a decrease from what former President Donald Trump’s administration had expected to request for the Pentagon in 2022.
Lawmakers allocated $704 billion for fiscal year 2021, and Biden’s request Friday would be a 1.5% increase in defense spending.
Yet, the budget boost is less than the Trump administration projected for the fiscal year 2022 budget. That budget would have requested the Pentagon get $722 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The overall defense budget topline, which includes money for the Department of Energy and its nuclear weapons program, is $753 billion. The budget does not detail where the money that is not earmarked for the Pentagon is going, but it is typically spent on the National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The proposal rolled out Friday also includes a significant reform and ends the use of an overseas contingency operations, or OCO, account.
For the first time in two decades, the budget does not include a separate fund to finance overseas military operations. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have slammed the OCO account as a "slush fund" that should be spent as part of the baseline Pentagon budget.
Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood said the Defense Department budget proposal will likely be released in late May, but he added the White House’s Office of Management and Budget has not set a date yet.
The White House also wrote in the proposal sent to lawmakers that the request prioritizes programs that support military families.
“Military families are key to the readiness and well-being of the all-volunteer force, and therefore are critical to national security,” according to the budget outline. “The discretionary request supports military families by prioritizing programs that directly support military spouses, caregivers, survivors and dependents.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., immediately criticized Biden’s request, calling it “disappointing.”
The lawmaker said he was happy to see the proposal slashed the use of the OCO “slush fund,” but added he is concerned the budget “will likely include other wasteful spending” on things such as new missiles.
“We need a fundamental shift in how we address national security issues and invest in climate action and pandemic response. Those are the issues impacting the security of the American people and will keep Americans safer than spending billions on more deadly weapons,” wrote Khanna, who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Several veterans service organizations also criticized the budget, as well as some watchdog groups, and called for funds to address more urgent needs such as the coronavirus pandemic and a decrease in the budget to stop fueling "endless wars."
“The pandemic made clear that we can no longer afford to keep funding wasteful and unnecessary Pentagon spending at the expense of great public health and safety needs. We continue to worry that these levels of spending aren't just unsustainable, but counterproductive for advancing the reforms we need to see at the Department of Defense,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.
Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, took a different tone. In support of the request, he said it makes necessary investments to respond to powers such as China and Russia.
“President Biden’s defense budget reflects the realities of global security, the need to take care of those who answer the call of service and the benefits of investing in our defense to every sector of our economy,” the Maryland lawmaker said.
Rep. Mike Turner was the first Republican on the House Armed Services Committee to repeat calls for a 3-5% increase in defense spending, a boost that top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have been urging Biden to consider in recent weeks to confront China.
"While I'm encouraged that the Biden administration intends to support nuclear modernization, amid growing threats from China, North Korea, Iran and Russia, any defense cuts will be cause for concern," the Ohio lawmaker wrote.
At the same time, some Democrats have called for significant cuts to defense spending to pay for other priorities such as diplomacy, humanitarian aid and public health.
The Trump administration had increased defense spending to help the Pentagon challenge rival world powers China and Russia. Trump's military budget for fiscal year 2021, which ends Sept. 30, was $740.5 billion.
Democrats in Congress have repeatedly called for spending on the military to shift to other issues such as health care, education and jobs, with the Congressional Progressive Caucus pushing last year for a 10% reduction in defense spending.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, “spending $740 billion a year on this one piece of the federal budget is unconscionable,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February.
In March, a group of 50 House Democrats, led by former progressive caucus chairpersons Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, urged Biden to make a “significantly reduced Pentagon topline,” without naming a specific number.
“While we are heartened that your administration is not contemplating expanding the Pentagon’s already inflated budget, our new Democratic majorities in Congress along with your administration should go further,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to Biden. “Rather than requesting a flat Pentagon budget, we urge you to seek a significantly reduced Pentagon topline.”
The lawmakers called for a reevaluation in priorities that had been set under the Trump administration. They said investments in diplomacy and global public health, among other things, would have a greater return on investment than hundreds of billions of dollars directed to the military.
“We must end the forever wars, heal our veterans, and re-orient towards a holistic conception of national security that centers public health, climate change and human rights,” they wrote.
The letter came after top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in early March argued in a letter to Biden that the budget should increase by 3-5% to modernize the force and fill ongoing readiness gaps to keep pace with China’s rising military investments.
“The next four years are going to be a crucial turning point for our military and our nation. If we do not make the investments our military needs today, we will not be able to defend our nation or our allies in the future,” wrote eight lawmakers, led by Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee.
The group urged Biden to focus investments on cyber warfare, nuclear triad modernization, growing the Navy and “to quickly incorporate the latest innovations and enhancements into warfighting capabilities, including air and sealift, space, missile defense, munitions, and electronic warfare.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has also called for a 3-5% increase, which is in line with the recommendations of the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission, which reviews U.S. defense strategy issues.
However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., have talked about bolstering cyber defenses and the importance of developing new technologies.
McConnell said in March that Biden must boost defense spending to prove to Republicans that his administration is serious about getting tough on China.
“If the administration is serious about competing with China, deterring Russia and preserving American leadership, the most important test will be in the president’s budget submission,” he said.