Politics & Policy

Paying For Iraq

Spending cuts can cover the whole $87 billion.

As Congress continues to look for palatable ways to fund American efforts in Iraq without breaking the bank, most lawmakers are engaging in an all-too-familiar pastime: saying yes to every interest group’s “wants” while shortchanging “needs” and asking taxpayers to make up the difference. But their schemes to fund President Bush’s request for $87 billion, without cutting any of Washington’s bloated spending programs, are little more than economically-destructive delusions.

Sen. Biden attempted to repeal part of the recent tax cuts in a feeble (and ultimately futile) bid to come up with additional cash for the Iraq reconstruction. But tax hikes, especially now, could send our recovering economy back into a tailspin. Several other plans have been put forth that would require part of the $87 billion to be paid back out of future oil revenues, an uncertain prospect that would still leave taxpayers footing the bill for the present time.

Rep. Pat Toomey’s commendable proposal to offset the package’s $20.3 billion portion for rebuilding Iraq, by eliminating lower-priority foreign-aid programs, comes closest to the target that fiscal disciplinarians ought to hit. But in a wartime situation, where sacrifice is needed, Congress could easily meet the whole $87 billion cost by making a few small sacrifices of its own — in the form of spending cuts elsewhere in the budget and modest efforts to tackle waste.

One good place to start would be eliminating the $20 billion in annual agricultural subsidies that contributed greatly to the collapse of the most recent round of trade talks in Cancun, Mexico. Also in line for a trimming are the rapid spending increases at several federal agencies over the last three years. The most dramatic increases include spending on education which is up 61 percent, Labor Department spending that has risen 56 percent, spending on energy programs that is up 22 percent, and health and human services spending, which has jumped 21 percent. Education has not improved dramatically in the last three years, nor has our nation’s energy infrastructure. These departments are just spending more money for the same, or worse, results as before. Cutting the rate of increase even back to inflation would save billions annually.

Eliminating just some of the waste, fraud, and abuse that plagues the federal government would give Congress more “low-hanging fruit” that would sweeten the pot. Most taxpayers are aware that the federal government has never been a paragon of efficiency, but Rep. Jim Nussle, chairman of the House Budget Committee, recently released a 421-page report that found enough money being wasted in Washington to pay for all $87 billion of the Iraq supplemental — with a few billion dollars left over. Unfortunately, the reception for his findings within the halls of Congress can only be described as “chilly.”

Furthermore, the $150 billion spent annually for corporate subsidies and tax benefits has not been touched, while the cost of Congress’s pork-barrel projects has doubled in the last four years alone, to $22.5 billion in 2003. Last month, Sen. John McCain identified $6.5 billion that lawmakers larded onto the Defense Appropriations Bill — just one of the 13 major spending bills the House and Senate consider each year.

The fact that there has been only limited movement from the Bush administration (and no movement from Congress) to eliminate this waste and abuse is an indicator of just how lacking in fiscal discipline both parties in Washington have become. The $600 billion deficit expected for next year will increase the average household’s future tax burden by $6,000. With an aging population and ever-growing entitlements, Congress is just pushing another $87 billion in debt onto the shoulders of future generations.

To cite a famous bumper sticker, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!” Congress should take heed of the simmering taxpayer outrage reflected in recent polls about the Iraq aid package now, before next November’s elections. Offsetting a substantial portion of the Iraq supplemental would be a good starting point.

— Paul J. Gessing is director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, a non-partisan citizen group based in Alexandria, Va.

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