It’s rare that one of the most conservative members of Congress joins one of the most liberal to pass significant legislation. But that is exactly what happened last week. Here’s how, and why:
Each year, Congress spends money on the elaborately titled “Overseas Contingency Operations Account.” Translated, this is the war budget, or money needed for operations primarily in Afghanistan. It is entirely separate from the “base defense budget,” which is regular and recurring military spending.
This year, the Pentagon asked for $80 billion for the war budget. By the time that request came up for a final vote in the House, however, it had magically increased to $85 billion.
Conservatives long have known that Congress likes to play around with the war budget. (The Bush administration made an art of it.) It is, after all, the ideal place to hide money: It is not subject to the sequester or other spending caps, and few members of Congress are willing to challenge it, lest they be cast as weak on defense.
Using the war budget to hide spending bothered me. It also bothered Congressman Christopher Van Hollen, a liberal Democrat from Maryland.
Mr. Van Hollen and I are usually on opposite sides of issues. (Our energetic floor fight over the president’s budget last year became an internet sensation.) Still, we agreed that this abuse of the war budget needed to stop, so we offered an amendment to remove the war budget slush fund. With an unusual coalition of hardcore fiscal hawks and anti-war liberals, it passed — by five votes.
Afterward, a reporter asked me what I was going to say back home about “taking away money that the Pentagon needed to fight the war.” I quickly corrected him: The Pentagon never asked for this money; only the politicians on the appropriations committee did.
Even with our amendment, the Pentagon will get every penny it requested to fight the war — including money critical to our Guard and Reserve. The only people who won’t get the money they wanted are the politicians.
We need to stop measuring our commitment to national defense by how much we spend, and look more closely at how we spend our money. And maybe an amendment offered by a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat was a small step in that direction.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney