Defense Secretary Jim Mattis holds a press conference at the Pentagon on August 28, 2018. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Since 2001, up to 28% of the annual defense budget has been hived off from the base budget into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to pay for wartime operations. But a new study by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that since 2006 at least $50 billion of annual OCO funds actually went to enduring activities — that is, those associated with running the military during peacetime.

Why it matters: Take this year’s budget: CBO estimates $47 billion for enduring costs out of the total $69 billion OCO budget. That means almost 70% of the OCO budget is not being used for its stated purpose — to sustain operations and the troops currently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This indicates a substantial misuse or misallocation of funds.

Background: In 2011, after a staggering rise in public debt and annual deficits, Congress and the Obama administration struck a deal that tried to pre-empt a budgetary crisis by limiting spending in certain areas, including defense. The Budget Control Act (BCA) was intended to curb some of the Pentagon’s spending and get the defense budget back on a sustainable trajectory.

However, the BCA was soon understood to be flawed, because any funds put into the OCO account for wartime operations were not subject to the same restrictions that limited the base budget. The CBO report now confirms that the BCA didn’t accomplish its goal the way its authors intended.

The OCO account makes up roughly 20% of the total annual defense budget, from 2001 to 2018. Especially in recent years, most of that funding should have been included in the base budget and thus subject to BCA restrictions, because that’s how it was ultimately used — not on wartime operations, but on the basic functions of our military.

What to watch: According to the 2019 budget, $20 billion of what had previously been labeled wartime funds will be moved from the OCO account to the base budget, where it belongs. This does not address every budgetary concern, but acknowledging how funds are actually spent should ensure more accurate accounting in future budget deals.

Caroline Dorminey is a policy analyst in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Go deeper

Biden and Trump tussle over "buy American" proposals

Joe Biden at a campaign event in Wilmington, DE. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump and Joe Biden are going back and forth over the former vice president's "buy American" economic proposal, which Trump claims Biden "plagiarized" from him.

Why it matters: Biden is directly challenging Trump and his "America First" agenda with the release of his latest plan, focused on economic recovery and re-investing in American manufacturing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

1 hour ago - Technology

Amazon tells workers to delete TikTok from devices they use for work

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Amazon, citing security risks, told its employees Friday to uninstall social video app TikTok from any mobile devices they use to access their work email.

Why it matters: The move comes amid a broader backlash against TikTok, in part due to questions around possible ties to Beijing. TikTok is owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance.

Delta CEO: Trump administration should issue mask mandate for air travel

Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Delta CEO Ed Bastian on Friday told CNN that he believes the Trump administration should move to require the use of face masks during air travel amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The big picture: Delta already requires passengers to wear masks during its flights, but Bastian says it can be difficult to enforce that directive if passengers refuse — and he's not sure if other airlines would be on board.