The major argument against free public college is that it isn’t actually free — taxpayers pick up the bill for tuition. But taxpayers already pick up the bill for a lot of services, including a war budget that’s been called the Pentagon’s slush fund.

Interestingly, just the proposed increase in that slush fund would more than pay for free college for Americans.

The proposed budget for 2020 includes a $96 billion increase in the budget for the Overseas Contingency Operations budget — meanwhile Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) 2017 proposal for free public college clocked in at about $70 billion.

The remaining $16 billion could be put into saving programs the Trump Administration intends to zero-fund, like the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities which collectively have a budget of a relatively minuscule $67 million.

Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, the Budget for a Better America, also eliminates public service student loan forgiveness.

And it isn’t like the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund is a longtime necessity in American defense spending. It was created to provide material support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which Trump wants to finish winding down. But the fund itself continues to wind up.

And part of that rationale is how massively useful the fund is for the military-industrial complex that lives and breathes in Republican, and especially Trumpian, politics. The OCO is immune to the ‘shared pain’ budget practice of Sequestration, and though it is supposed to be shared between the Departments of Defense and State, the Defense Department consumes the vast majority of the fund.

What is OCO money used for, if not the stated purpose? Former House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey) cautioned that the money was being used by the Defense Department to buy military hardware they couldn’t get funded normally.

“While this approach clearly recognizes that the budget total we’ve requested is needed, the avenue it takes is just as clearly a road to nowhere,” said former Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

And this increase in the OCO isn’t, by any means, alone. It forms part of historically high defense spending that seems very discordant with a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria and the President’s close relationship with many of America’s geopolitical enemies.

“It just risks becoming permanent business,” said former White House budget official Gordon Adams. “We just have a slush fund for defense, period.”

But the money pouring into the military-industrial complex has better uses. It isn’t enough to say investment in the OCO should stop, because good uses of tax money can bring about good results.Free college could well have enormous benefits to both the economy and the well-being of Americans in general, to say nothing of the smaller programs that could be saved with the excess.

Or we could continue funding the OCO. Which Winslow Wheeler, a former national security staffer for members of both parties, sees as a failing on the part of both sides of the defense spending debate. Where it was embraced as what Wheeler characterized as a gimmick to give the Defense budget a few billion dollars extra, it has sense exploded into a $96 billion feeding trough.

“They both caved from their alleged principles in order to give the defense budget more money,” said Wheeler.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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