May 3, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Too late to tweak budget

Set aside, for a moment, the charge made by some lawmakers that President Bush is playing politics when he says Congress doesn't need to provide more defense money now. They claim he wants to avoid public debate over the cost of the war in Iraq. After all, the countercharge - that war opponents are the ones trying to score political points - is just as easily made and just as impossible to prove. Focus instead on the request itself: Should we approve a supplemental defense appropriation for Iraq now?

No.

For one thing, the Pentagon says it doesn't need it. Officials there say they can get through the year without a "supplemental" - the additional funding Congress grants to pay bills until the next annual budget cycle begins on Oct. 1.

So it makes little sense for Congress, which has a lot of other issues on its plate, to insist on passing one anyway.

The main reason, though, is time.

Every year the Pentagon budgets what it needs to maintain our forces. Expenses for unexpected missions, such as deployments to Haiti and combat operations overseas, normally are covered by supplementals.

Yet, the later in the year that a supplemental is passed, the less time there is to spend the money. Dollars appropriated for a particular fiscal year must be obligated by Sept. 30. When the money arrives in late spring or summer, there typically isn't enough time to spend it.

Take training and maintenance, which are usually the first expenses delayed when unexpected costs arise. As the year draws to a close, there isn't enough time to do all of the exercises and lube jobs that were deferred to pay for combat. So the money goes unspent - and does little to support operations or improve readiness.

The fiscal year is already half over, and the clock is ticking.

If Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had gone on the warpath in December, a supplemental might have made a difference. Now, it's doubtful Congress could act quickly enough to help the Pentagon.

James Jay Carafano, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow specializing in defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared on USAToday.com