WASHINGTON — Congress appears to have bucked the Trump administration this week by passing hundreds of millions of dollars in missile defense aid for Israel likely using funds historically reserved for current US wartime operations.
The White House made clear over the summer that it was not opposed to the amount of aid proposed by Congress for Israel, but rather the vehicle for its delivery– an unprecedented use of dollars typically saved for US military readiness. On Thursday, Congress approved the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to include $705 million for US-Israel missile defense cooperation, including $588 million over President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.
The House has proposed for the first time tapping the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget for this aid increase– a fund that is effectively uncapped by the Budget Control Act and has become a loophole through which Congress and the Pentagon get around budget cuts ever since sequestration (a legal procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered if the federal budget exceeds a set limit) hit defense programs hard in 2013.
In July, a National Security Council spokesperson told The Jerusalem Post that “misuse” of OCO funds for any purpose but US wartime readiness was a “slippery slope” down which no party should slide for any reason.
“This was the first time Israeli missile defense was pinned by any congressional committee to OCO,” the official said at the time. “Funding these enduring requirements in OCO would complicate the funding stability for associated outyear costs and runs contrary to the purpose of OCO.”
The White House also expressed opposition to the use of OCO funds for Israel aid in a statement on administration policy published over the summer.
Nevertheless, sources intimate with the omnibus defense bill confirmed that “most” the $588 million now passed by Congress and on the president’s desk comes from OCO. A final decision on the sourcing for the aid will be made in a continuing resolution through the appropriations process, one source added, suggesting there is time for a change.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for the additional funding and praised Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill for supporting it.
“On a bipartisan basis, the Senate and House of Representatives have now adopted funding that would support both [research and development] for and procurement of the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 cooperative missile defense systems— key programs that help Israel defend its citizens against rockets and missiles and also advance America’s own missile defense capabilities,” the lobby said in a statement, referring to Israel’s short, medium and long-range missile defense systems.
The White House declined to comment on Congress’ final decision or on whether its use of OCO funds warrants a presidential veto. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.