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The Pentagon’s $80 Billion Whole30 Cheat

How war spending helped the military pack on the pounds.

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: Holson House

Recently, I returned home after a 2-doughnut-and-a-cookie day at the office and announced proudly that the next day, damnit, I was starting Whole30. The diet was a necessary evil, I rationalized, to confront the hole I’d been digging for myself since Christmas.

I had all the best intentions, and over the first few days of the diet, the outlook was good. “This isn’t even hard,” I found myself saying. “Who wouldn’t want to live on bacon and fruit?”

It wasn’t long, though, before I started to rationalize the occasional cheat.

“I mean, hummus is sooo healthy.”

“Apples are allowed, and hard cider is made from apples. Right?”

I was feeling better anyway, and somewhere along the way, the original point of the diet kind of got lost in the mix.

We’ve all been there. But the Pentagon, it turns out, is also no stranger to the concept of a diet cheat.

Once upon a time — when the economy wasn’t so great — Congress and the Obama administration were gung-ho to get the budget in check. This led to all sorts of cost-saving measures, including the 2011 Budget Control Act, which put upper limits on defense and domestic spending until 2021. The problem is that somewhere along the way the economy improved, and now most lawmakers can’t remember why they ever bothered to care.

As a result, Congress and the administration have gotten used to some very comfortable workarounds — the most problematic of which is an $80 billion war fund that, at this point, is hardly funding the wars. The Pentagon has acknowledged that at least half of the fund, called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), is now used to supplement its regular budget and sidestep the law.

Of course, the Pentagon’s estimate is just that. The Defense Department’s accounting systems don’t currently require it to differentiate between wartime accounts and routine operations, so the line is pretty blurry between the two.

The effect of the shift in funds, though, can be partially illustrated by calculating the cost of a single troop, which has grown from about $1 million in 2008 to $5.9 million in 2017.

That’s a whole lot of extra weight.

At this point, Congress should probably get rid of the budget caps and start over. With such a big loophole in current law, the caps are doing little to accomplish their original aim.

Short of tackling what could turn out to be a political minefield, though, Congress can try two things to help get the budget back under control. First, the guidance agencies use to determine what is and is not war spending, which is based on an association with a specified region, hasn’t been updated since 2010. As a result, the designation is currently being used to justify spending on all sorts of things that aren’t war. Congress should require the Department of Defense to work with the Office of Management and Budget to revise and strengthen this guidance. Second, the Pentagon’s accounting systems need an update. Congress should require the Defense Department to report enduring war costs — the ones that might otherwise appear in the Pentagon’s base budget — in future budget requests.

Cheating on a diet is one thing. Cheating on the national debt is entirely another. If a separate war spending designation is going to continue to exist, taxpayers at least have a right to know what it funds.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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