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04.08.15 10:30 PM ET

Republicans: The Cocaine Monkeys of Defense Spending

They talk nice about cuts, but Republicans won’t say no to the Pentagon, and in the end, they’ll cut a deal that ups domestic spending too.

Republicans claim that they, unlike Democrats, are the fiscally responsible party and often preach about the dangers of the growing national debt and the need to reduce the size of government. The reality is quite different, however. Apart from wanting to trim food stamps, foreign aid, and Medicaid, Republicans simply aren’t willing to specify the programs they are truly willing to ax—especially the Republicans now out on the campaign trail.

Exhibit A is defense spending. Republicans love it. In fact, they love it so much that they can’t get enough of it. Ever. For all their complaints about government inefficiency, many of them seem to think that it doesn’t apply to the Department of Defense, and that every additional dollar spent on projects like the F35—a supposedly nuclear-capable fighter jet that defense contractor Lockheed Martin has been working on since 2001 and is long overdue and over budget and still not fully operational—or the super-expensive and unnecessary Abrams Tank translates into increased national security.

The opening battle in Congress over the fiscal 2016 budget is illustrative. Ever since Congress and the Obama administration capped the defense budget under the 2011 Budget Control Act—the so-called “sequester” agreement that allowed the debt ceiling to increase—Republican military hawks and their conservative backers have been chomping at the bit to undo the so-called “damage.” It was actually quite funny—for a while—to watch Republicans become full-blown Keynesians, arguing that defense cuts would destroy the economy and threaten jobs.

Now that Republicans have complete control of Congress, the hawks have seized upon the party leadership’s strong desire to pass a unified budget resolution as an opportunity to lard up Uncle Sam’s war machine. While a budget resolution doesn’t have the force of law, it does create the framework for the actual allocation of taxpayer dollars to the federal government’s various parts that will come later.

For the hawks, that means getting the largest number for the Pentagon as possible—the methodology be damned. And with the House and the Senate having passed their versions and working on a conference agreement, it looks like the hawks will have succeeded in getting that larger number via the Pentagon’s slush fund: It’s called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, and the thing that they love about the OCO account is that it is not subject to the budget caps.

If you are thinking that the OCO account was originally set up to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would be right. If you are thinking that this is all that it does, though, you would be wrong. It has long been used by both parties as a convenient way to spend money on stuff that otherwise wouldn’t fit under the Pentagon’s base budget, which is subject to the caps. And because it’s supposed to be an “emergency” war budget, the oversight is light. Thus it’s an ideal vehicle for wasteful spending.

How much money does the GOP want to shove into the OCO slush fund? Both the House and Senate budget resolutions would add $38 billion to the president’s $58 billion OCO request for a total of $96 billion. That $96 billion would be on top of base national defense funding of $523 billion, which is the maximum allowable under the caps, for a total of $619 billion.

I understand that this move is an attempt to appease both sides of the Republican Party, the defense hawks and the debt hawks. But it remains infuriating. Instead of just busting the defense cap and finally dropping any pretense that they were ever serious about tackling the Pentagon’s bloat, the GOP decided to make a mockery of it.

At least the president openly requested to blow the budget caps. Under the administration’s proposed budget, base national defense would be $554 billion, plus $58 billion in OCO funds, for a total of $612 billion. The $612 billion the president wants for defense isn’t much less than the GOP’s $619 billion. But the difference is that the GOP’s methodology for arriving at its figure it a complete joke.

Of course, the president’s generous proposal for defense funding comes at a price: He also wants to obliterate the cap for domestic spending by $35 billion. With that in mind, ask yourself what you think will ultimately happen when the Republican Congress has to strike a deal with the White House to actually fund the government for fiscal 2016? Okay, I’ll tell you.

The president has already declared his intention that he is willing to spend more on defense in order to spend more on non-defense. And the final budget resolution is going to load up on defense spending one way or another. So it doesn’t take a strong imagination to envision that when the dust finally settles later this year, the GOP Congress will likely end up caving in to the Democrats’s desire for more spending on domestic programs in exchange for more spending on defense. 

So for all the talk about smaller government and fiscal responsibility, it appears that once again congressional Republicans are more interested in showering the Pentagon with taxpayer dollars while refusing to ever resist the lure of war. They’re the cocaine laboratory monkeys of useless defense spending, and they just can’t stop self-administering. And once again conservatives are about to find out that you’ll never get smaller government at home if you insist on big government abroad.