March 19, 2007

March 19, 2007 | Commentary on

Congress Dumps Troop Funding into Pork Barrel

Remember the promises of fiscal discipline on which the latest Congress was elected? Well, lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem to have forgotten - and they're willing to sacrifice the well-being of our troops if they don't get to indulge their free-spending ways.

Congress has larded President Bush's defense supplemental bill with $21 billion in unrelated add-ons. This wish list, representing a who's who of special interests, brings the total cost of the bill to $124 billion. The result may be the most expensive "emergency" legislation in American history.

Barely a month ago, the new Democratic congressional majority bragged about passing a budget limiting fiscal 2007 discretionary spending (excluding emergencies) to the president's cap of $873 billion, an increase of "only" 3.5 percent from last year. It promised pay-as-you-go budget rules and spending restraint to curb the deficit.

How quickly things change. Declaring this additional $21 billion an "emergency" allows Congress to not count it against the budget caps. This accounting gimmick may hide the spending from budget documents, but taxpayers still will be on the hook for it on April 15.

In what is becoming an annual ritual, these "emergencies" include massive farm bailouts, such as $25 million for spinach growers, $100 million for citrus growers, $74 million for peanut storage and $283 million in milk subsidies. More than $4 billion in additional "emergency" payments would go to farmers on top of the $20 billion per year in regular subsidies - and despite record-high farm incomes over the past three years.

The spending spree extends well beyond farmers: There is $120 million for the shrimp and menhaden fishing industries, $60 million for fisheries and $5 million for those engaged in "breeding, rearing or transporting live fish." NASA would get $35 million. Fourteen states that chose to expand health coverage but not fully pay for it would be rewarded with a huge bailout from the 36 states that budgeted responsibly.

The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan - whom this legislation was originally designed for - have become merely a bargaining chip for a Congress that could never pass this additional $21 billion on its own. Lawmakers are effectively telling President Bush that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot have their body armor unless Congress gets $16 million for additional office space in the House of Representatives.

Is it any wonder that polls show 80 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress' performance on federal spending?

Remarkably, the spending spree is not the only way that Congress has hijacked this national security supplemental bill. It also contains a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. This provision alone, which would force the withdrawal by or before Sept. 1, 2008, undermines the central purpose of the bill. It would allow terrorist elements in Iraq to bide their time, consolidate their positions and plan on how to use the greater freedom of action they would have after the withdrawal to attack Americans at home and abroad.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett recently made it crystal clear in press interviews that President Bush would veto a security supplemental bill that contained the deadline. Specifically, Mr. Bartlett stated that "obviously, the administration would vehemently oppose and ultimately veto any legislation that looked like what was described [by House leaders] today."

The White House's strong stand regarding this deadline provision is fully justified. The purpose of the defense supplemental bill is to keep up the attack on the terrorists in Iraq. The deadline provision - and billions of dollars in extra spending - undermines that purpose.

President Bush requested that Congress quickly fund the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and debate the war strategy separately. Yet Congress chose to hold troop funding hostage to pork-barrel spending and to provide terrorists with a countdown clock to America's exit from Iraq.

Lawmakers must show that those promises of fiscal restraint were not meaningless by providing a clean bill for President Bush to sign. The troops deserve no less.

Brian M. Riedl is the Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy.

About the Author

Brian M. Riedl Grover Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Baltimore Sun