In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, to supposedly help limit spending of your tax dollars. But the Pentagon has extra wiggle room thanks to an obscure account that's existed for decades. Our Lisa Fletcher dug into that with one government watchdog who calls it "The Pentagon's Slush Fund."
Ryan Alexander: These are the types of things that taxpayers should be mad about. Congress should really live by the rules that they set, and not use gimmicks, and, and, you know, escape valves to get around the rules that they set for themselves.
The gimmick that Ryan Alexander, the President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, is talking about is the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a special fund that the Pentagon gets to draw from, separate from its annual budget. As the name implies, the money is meant for unplanned and overseas military projects.
Ryan Alexander: The idea is that when there when they need stuff for the wars that we're fighting, that goes into the OCO account. But what's happened is that all sorts of things that should be in the base budget have moved over to the OCO account.
Things like 115 million dollars for a new Army base in Cuba; 13.4 million dollars for an aircraft parking apron in Djibouti; 15 million dollars for a Consolidated Squadron Operations Facility in Qatar to name a few.
Ryan Alexander: For example in this year's OCO bill, there's twenty-five million dollars for a dormitory in Turkey, construction for a dormitory in Turkey.
Lisa Fletcher: That doesn't sound like something that needs to be done quickly on a contingency basis.
Ryan Alexander: I think that when you're building a dormitory in a country where we've had a long military presence that's NATO ally, to call it a contingency is a little absurd.
Alexander says the account has been even bigger in years past.
Ryan Alexander: At its height, OCO was at a hundred and eighty-seven billion, and that was in the fiscal year 2008. To put that in context, that's the equal amount to the combined budgets of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Interior last year.
Although the Overseas Contingency Operations fund is currently only at 74 billion, Alexander believes there's still plenty of projects in there that are clearly not for war planning that are enabling the Pentagon to bust its budget.
Ryan Alexander: There are so many line items in the OCO account that simply aren't what the account's designed for. And that's important because Congress set limits for itself. And by pushing money out of those limits and into the Overseas Contingent Account, they're going around their own rules, they're circumventing the law.
Lisa Fletcher: In effect, is this money-laundering by the Pentagon?
Ryan Alexander: Well, I think money laundering might be a little strong, but it is, kind of, it is a good analogy, cause it is moving money, changing accounts.
Lisa Fletcher: I mean, taxpayers have to play by the rules and they're the ones ultimately paying for this and it doesn't sound like the Pentagon is playing by the rules. Or Congress is playing by the rules.
Ryan Alexander: Well, the Pentag-right. The Pentagon is looking for every dollar it can get. So, Congress's willingness to give so much money to the Pentagon is definitely at the root of the abuse of the overseas account. Congress wants to be able to go home and say that they are strong on defense, that they have spent money on programs that might create jobs in their districts, and so by pushing spending into the overseas account, they get to have it both ways. They get to say we're being fiscally responsible, we're living by the limits, but we're funding whatever we want.
Lisa Fletcher: It seems like we want to support the troops is a bit of a red herring used to mask what the real purpose of some of this money being spent is.
Ryan Alexander: You know, the kind of, universal truth of wanting to support the troops, it has been used to justify abusive spending practices for a long time.
There are multiple "slush fund" or "off budget" accounts that exist or are proposed - the latest of which is dubbed the National Defense Restoration Fund. It allows the secretary of defense to spend close to $30-billion with only 30 days notice. Alexander says it's poised to "set the land speed record for waste."