Should our tax dollars fund our troops fighting in Iraq, or the
Smithsonian's national worm collection?
If it's business as usual up at the Capitol, then this is the type of question Congress will grapple with in the coming weeks. And if history is our guide, the outcome is too close to call.
On March 25, President Bush unveiled a $75 billion proposal to provide immediate funding for the war in Iraq. Of that amount, $63 billion would be to fight the war, $8 billion would be targeted to foreign assistance and humanitarian aid, and $4 billion would strengthen homeland security. The lives of the men and women in our armed forces depend on Congress providing these funds immediately.
It remains to be seen if Congress will act quickly and responsibly. On March 21 of last year, President Bush proposed $27 billion in immediate aid to prosecute the global war on terrorism, upgrade homeland security and rebuild downtown Manhattan. It was not until July 24 -- four months after receiving the proposal -- that Congress finally sent the legislation back to the president's desk to be signed into law.
And what caused the delay? The Senate was busy adding billions in pork-barrel spending. As al Qaeda quickly regrouped, the institution that bills itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body" made sure that no defense or homeland security funds would be released unless they also included: $2 million for the Smithsonian's national worm collection, $1 million for student housing in Baltimore, $2.5 million for coral reef mapping in Hawaii, and additional funds for everything from honeybee research to a Dog Dealers Task Force.
By the time the Senate was done, the president's $27 billion proposal had ballooned to $31 billion. Senators did offset some of this new spending with reductions elsewhere: They refused to fund the president's $10 million plan to put a foreign terrorist tracking task force in the FBI. Apparently, the FBI was no match for honeybee research on the Senate's priority list.
It was not just a few senators who held national security funding hostage last year. Their spending plan passed the Appropriations Committee by a vote of 31 to 0, and the full Senate 71 to 26. Eventually, the Senate relented and offset some of the new spending with reductions in programs such as housing for the poor. President Bush wisely exercised his option to not release some of the more egregious expenditures.
Will Congress again hold national security hostage? There will certainly be pressure to act quickly to guarantee the safety of our troops, but Congress may respond by adding the same pork projects at a faster rate. At this very moment, well-connected lobbyists and influential constituents are surely delivering their wish lists to members of Congress.
Congress should pledge that any new funding added to the president's $75 billion request be used solely for assisting our men and women in combat. Every dollar spent on an irrelevant pork project represents one dollar that could be better spent keeping our troops safe.
Instead of once again adding $3 million for cattle-genome sequencing, Congress could use that money to purchase 1,000 additional night-vision goggles for our troops. Rather than adding $700,000 for a biomass project in Winona, Mississippi, lawmakers could buy 2,000 more gas masks to protect our military from chemical and biological attacks. Instead of adding $21 million more for ocean mapping, Congress could equip our military pilots with 1,000 more satellite-guided bombs that can target elite Iraqi military divisions.
Unless, of course, Congress thinks that money would be better spent on pork.
Brian M. Riedl is the Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary issues at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire