One of the persistent criticisms of President Obama’s fiscal plan is that it counts war spending reductions as savings. Basically, the Congressional Budget Office calculates its defense baseline in part by taking the most recent war supplemental (technically called Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO) and assuming that amount—adjusted for inflation—will be spent each year over the foreseeable horizon. This adds up to about $1.73 trillion over 10 years. The president’s proposal, however, includes only $653 billion in OCO spending over 10 years, for a savings of about $1.1 trillion.
Some critics, however, allege that these savings cannot be counted because the CBO OCO baseline itself isn’t realistic, therefore the savings are not “real.” For example, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) argues that counting these savings is a “budget gimmick” that the president uses to “inflate his savings.” According to this critique, another baseline for OCO expenditures should be used—either the president’s budget request or the CBO’s drawdown policy option—which would lower the baseline and make it practically impossible to generate budget savings from reducing war spending.
All due respect to CRFB and the other critics, but this criticism is silly. The CBO OCO baseline isn’t “unrealistic”—rather, it represents the costs of President Bush’s aggressive invasion-centered approach to foreign policy extended into perpetuity. President Obama is, thankfully, in the process of trying to change America’s approach to foreign policy, drawing down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and moving toward a more multilateral, patient, diplomatic, and most importantly, less expensive approach. Furthermore, the fiscal plan proposes to cap OCO spending, thereby making sure those savings are realized.
President Obama’s foreign policy approach costs less money than President Bush’s, and the budget outlook should reflect those savings.