May 5, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Holding Troops Hostage to Pork Barrel Spending Is No Way for Congress to Fight the War on Terror

On April 25, the White House issued a statement of policy that asserted that President Bush would veto a supplemental appropriations bill that exceeds $92.2 billion, excluding his plan to address a possible influenza pandemic. The primary purpose of the supplemental bill is to fund ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. 


The Senate's version of the bill, which was completed on May 4, spends roughly $109 billion. The Senate's action makes it clear why the White House is brandishing the veto threat. The Senate, and most particularly those senators serving on the Appropriations Committee, is holding the safety and well-being of American troops serving abroad hostage in order to slake its thirst for spending on narrow constituencies. 


The additional spending items in the Senate bill clearly would not survive if they were presented to President Bush as separate pieces of legislation. He would veto them. Thus, the Senate is attempting to protect these spending items from a veto by attaching them to the "must pass" legislation for the troops. 


As with all hostage-taking, the hostage-takers in the Senate have attempted to blame others for the deaths or injuries that will result from their actions by arguing that they have reasonable demands. For example, Sen. Robert Byrd has stated,

The conferees should send to the President a bill that meets the needs of this country. That's our duty. If the President wants to veto a bill that funds the troops, if he wants to veto a bill that funds victims of Hurricane Katrina, if he wants to veto a bill that provides critical resources for combatting a potential avian flu, if he wants to veto a bill that secures our borders and our ports and helps our farmers to recover from disaster and makes our coal mines safer, have at it. Have at it. That is his right under the Constitution. But the Congress should not be bullied by the President into neglecting its responsibility, our responsibility to provide required funds to meet priority national needs.

These demands are not reasonable in any context, much less so in one where the core purposes of the broader legislation is the support of U.S. troops and their vital mission to provide for the defense of the American people. A partial list of the narrow constituencies receiving the extra spending in the bill demonstrates why. The list of recipients includes


  • Hawaiian sugarcane growers,
  • Reef fishermen and shrimpers,
  • Aircraft manufacturers,
  • Mississippi shipbuilders,
  • Riverfront residents in California,
  • Driving license applicants in Georgia, and
  • Future residents of a retirement facility in Mississippi.

Senators Who Have the Right Priorities

Fortunately, some senators recognize that the national interest is broader than the sum of the narrow interests of individual constituencies. On May 2, 35 senators signed a letter to President Bush stating that they were prepared to uphold the veto threatened in the White House statement of policy. With these commitments, there is enough strength in the Senate to uphold a veto of a supplemental appropriations bill that exceeds the $92.2 billion cap sought by President Bush.


The immediate issue, however, is how to reconcile the differences between the House version of the supplemental appropriations bill and the Senate version. The House version of the bill meets the spending cap sought by President Bush. Ideally, the House-Senate conference would simply strip out the frivolous spending items added by the Senate and send the final version of the bill to President Bush for his immediate signature. The sponsors of the additional spending items from the Senate side, however, can be expected to oppose this responsible approach.


Specifically, these senators can be expected to proceed to the next step in their strategy of holding the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq hostage. The Department of Defense has stated that it needs the supplemental funds to support the troops prior to Memorial Day. Therefore, the option exists to try and string out the conference to the eve of the Memorial Day deadline to make it more difficult for President Bush to exercise his veto. In this context, the supporters of pork barrel spending can also be expected to blame President Bush for not supporting the troops.


Such a cynical ploy cannot be allowed to succeed. If necessary, the House members of the conference should move to accept the specific spending items proposed by the Senate and send the bill to President Bush for his veto in short order. Following the expected veto, the House leadership should move quickly to uphold the veto. Then, House and Senate leaders should move immediately to adopt a stripped down version of the supplemental appropriations bill that is focused on providing funds to the troops and emergency relief for hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast. This stripped down version of the bill should reach President Bush's desk before Memorial Day.


Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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