On Thursday, President Barack Obama vetoed the $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act, the law that funds the Pentagon for the 2016 fiscal year. Nestled among the long list of defense and foreign policy projects funded by the bill is the European Reassurance Initiative, which — as its name suggests — signals the United States' renewed commitment to reassure NATO members that Washington will help preserve their territorial integrity, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where fears of Russian aggressiveness run high.
"This bill fails to authorize funding for our national defense in a fiscally responsible manner," the president's veto message to the House of Representatives said. "It underfunds our military in the base budget, and instead relies on an irresponsible budget gimmick that has been criticized by members of both parties. Specifically, the bill's use of $38 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funding — which was meant to fund wars and is not subject to budget caps — does not provide the stable, multi-year budget upon which sound defense planning depends."
Because the funding for the initiative has been allocated as part of the rather controversial Overseas Contingency Operations fund at the president's request, some have questioned whether Obama is ready to make a long-term commitment to defending members of the NATO alliance. These critics would prefer to see the program funded under the Pentagon's core budget, which provides a five-year financial projection, unlike the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, or OCO, which must be reauthorized annually.
"I can't figure out why the funding is not going to be wrapped up in the core budget because this will give an enduring commitment to European security," said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This is mind-boggling to me," he added.
The initial funding for the initiative came in June 2014, when Obama asked Congress to add $1 billion to the fiscal year 2015 OCO fund, a supplemental war-fighting account originally created to pay for unexpected increases in costs associated with fighting the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The European Reassurance Initiative was in response to the Russian-backed rebels' attacks in Ukraine, and Russia's annexation of Crimea, movements that began in the middle of a fiscal year. Harrison sees that initial request as an appropriate use of the OCO account, but is skeptical of the current request.
"Since then, however, we have been able to foresee this," he said. "We've known that additional funding was going to be needed."
For fiscal year 2016, Obama requested roughly $800 million to be added to the OCO fund to pay for the same mission: supporting European allies concerned with Russia's bellicose behavior.
The latest addition would pay for the US military's increased presence in Europe, additional training exercises with allies, improved positioning of equipment, and other support, according to the Department of Defense's 2016 Budget Request.
The administration clearly deems it appropriate to continue to fund this outside of the Pentagon's core budget. But what is more interesting, Harrison says, is the administration's vow to veto the defense policy bill in part because the OCO fund has been padded to pay for anticipated costs. Congress added $38 billion to the war-fighting account on top of the funds requested by the Pentagon and the White House.
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The White House has not, in recent years, shied away from paying for things out of the OCO account that Harrison believes should be part of the normal Pentagon budget, "to the tune of $20 billion a year." He sees the European Reassurance Initiative as just such an anticipated cost.
Self-imposed mandatory budget caps, also known as sequestration, currently prevent lawmakers from increasing spending limits under the Pentagon's base budget (the same applies to most of the rest of the federal government, too). The OCO account, however, is exempt from sequestration, which is what makes it such a tempting bucket to fill.
But not everyone is looking askance at Obama's request. Jacob Cohn, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, does not see how funding the ERI under the base budget instead of the OCO account would signify a "substantially greater commitment" to European allies. Including the ERI — or any program — in the Pentagon's base budget isn't a guarantee that it will be included in future defense funding, Cohn said.
VICE News asked the Pentagon whether or not it thought the OCO was the right account in which to fund the ERI. Their reply? "We are fully satisfied with and support the President's budget request to Congress for FY16 as it is."
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the Army's commander in Europe, said that the main thing to remember is that the US's role in the region is the same as it was when he was a lieutenant "100 years ago." Except now, the US has 30,000 soldiers deployed on that mission, not 300,000, and they're focused on deterring Russia, not the Soviet Union, he said in a presentation at the Association of the US Army's annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week.
But somewhere between the concerns of commanders on the ground and the official Pentagon line on the budget, pundits on both sides of the aisle are, as always, ready to weigh in on the situation.
"The circumstances have slightly changed, but the mission of deterrence and defending NATO is still the same," said Luke Coffey, the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation's expert on the role of NATO and the European Union in transatlantic security, and the only non-UK citizen appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to provide advice to senior British ministers. Like Harrison, he sees the current US "reassurance" to support Europe as dubious.
"As long as this stays in OCO, our European allies won't think we're committed for the long haul," he said."And Russia will plan on us not being committed for the long haul."
This whole debate may simply become moot, however. If Congress does not pass a budget and instead relies on a yearlong continuing resolution keeping the FY 2015 budget and its spending priorities in place for FY 2016, the European Reassurance Initiative would actually receive more money out of last year's OCO budget, as Cohn pointed out.
But for now, the president's veto has put this all back in Congress's court. It remains to be seen if the strong support for the defense budget the first time around will materialize in the face of a veto. Now that Obama has signed the veto, it's high time for a showdown at the OCO Corral.
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