Pentagon leaders faced heavy opposition from the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday to the Obama administration’s requested counterterrorism partnership fund, with members from both parties raising concerns that the proposed $5 billion account amounts to little more than a slush fund for the Defense Department.
The $5 billion for the broadly defined counterterrorism account is just a small part of the administration’s $60 billion request for overseas contingency operations. But lawmakers said they feared it would allow the military to avoid congressional oversight, spending the money on anything that is even tangentially related to combating terrorists around the world.
“If you wanted to take this money and use it to refuel an aircraft carrier, there is nothing in this language that stop you from doing that,” Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said during the hearing. “We’ve got to fence it in somehow. And my understanding is it’s not terribly well fenced. That’s a structural problem, and it’s also a concern that it isn’t as well thought out as it should have been,” he added.
Under the administration’s proposal, he Defense Department would receive $4 billion from the counterterrorism fund, with the State Department getting $1 billion.
The House hearing follows a markup on Tuesday at which the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee agreed to a fiscal 2015 defense spending bill that trimmed the counterterrorism fund to $1.9 billion. The subcommittee’s bill does, however, include the requested $500 million within that fund to train and equip moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Pentagon officials countered congressional criticism by arguing that they believe the language is narrow enough while still providing the department with more spending flexibility to fight terrorists and respond to crises around the world.
Officials also stressed that the use of funds would require sign-off from the White House. Congress, meanwhile, would be notified 15 days in advance.
“We believe there will be all sort of checks and balances,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work told the panel.
The department, Work stressed, needs the flexibility the fund would provide, but officials also want to work with Congress on how it would be used.
“Flexibility is something we really need now based on the very, very difficult time we have in our overall budget,” Work added.
Work’s assurances appeared to do little to sway committee members — even those who are traditional allies of the administration — on the counterterrorism fund. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., equated it to a “slush fund,” while Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said it amounted to a “blank check” for the department.
Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, a senior Republican on the panel, said the administration has provided Congress with too few details on how it plans to use the fund to expand on existing authorities. Simply requesting it in the OCO proposal without much discussion on Capitol Hill, he said, “may not be the most helpful approach moving forward.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.