Politics & Policy

Wartime Congressional Spectacle

Pork goes to war.

The way in which the U.S. government funds military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an annual orgy of pork-barrel spending so shameless that even hard-core fiscal conservatives have to at least respect its audacity. Each year the president asks lawmakers to pass an “emergency” supplemental bill to fund the global war on terror, and each year lawmakers exploit the urgency of supplying U.S. troops in combat by attaching dozens of unrelated projects to the must-pass bill. This year was worse than usual. Right now the American public is witnessing the spectacle of its representatives in Congress flip-flopping on life-and-death matters of national security over a few billion extra dollars for the nation’s subsidy-soaked agricultural sector. If this disgraceful display doesn’t illustrate the need for a new approach to funding the war, it’s hard to imagine what could.

The process of funding the war through emergency supplementals has created a “slow-bleed” on the American taxpayer that happens in one obvious way and one not-so-obvious way. The obvious way is that members of Congress take advantage of the urgent and off-the-books nature of the bills to secure funding for orphaned pork projects. For example, Citizens Against Government Waste has published a few of the items that Congress has added to the latest supplemental. They include:

 

  • $283 million for dairy subsidies;
  • $74 million for peanut-storage costs; and
  • $25 million for spinach growers.

 

These payments are above and beyond the $3.3 billion added to the bill for crop and livestock “disaster” payments. Disaster assistance is not the occasional bailout for drought-stricken farmers that the name implies. The federal government has doled out over $14 billion in disaster relief since 1999, for an average of over $2 billion a year. Most of that money has gone to a small group of farmers who are chronically dependent on disaster aid. Either these are the most disaster-prone farmers in the entire world or Congress needs to drop the pretense and call these payments what they are, which is regular old farm subsidies.

The Democrats added these and other handouts to the latest war supplemental in order to buy the votes of Democrats like Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) who represent conservative rural districts and thus are afraid to vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to limit the president’s military options in Iraq and set a date certain for withdrawal. Several antiwar Democrats have said that they won’t vote for the bill either, because it doesn’t do enough to bring the troops home now. Take these defections from the Speaker’s party and add the fact that this bill gets porked up even in a good year, and one can begin to see why the president’s request for $103 billion to fund the war has ballooned into a $124-billion monstrosity.

The second, less-obvious way in which the funding of the war drains taxpayer dollars is that it allows Congress to increase non-defense discretionary spending by about $5 to $10 billion a year without anybody knowing about it. Each year, Congress uses the executive branch’s budget requests as a guideline to pass a budget resolution that caps overall spending. Congress always deviates from the president’s budget to some degree, but it seems strange that in each of the five years since the Sept. 11th attacks the Department of Defense has gotten an average of $7 billion less than it has requested. Ordinarily, underfunding the military during a time of war would be political suicide, but it seems less strange when you consider that Congress simply adds this money back in the war supplementals, which are not subject to budget caps. Meanwhile, the money deducted from DOD’s request is shifted toward discretionary spending in other departments. It’s a shell game that helps Congress circumvent its own budget process.

Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer emergencies and should cease to be funded as such. There isn’t any good reason why the war can’t be funded through the regular budget process. Opponents of this idea within the Bush administration offer a number of arguments against it, including one designed to appeal to fiscal conservatives. They argue that increasing the Pentagon’s annual budget by $100 billion or so runs the risk that DOD would keep demanding the same level of funding even after the troops come home. But unlike most government spending, which is difficult to roll back because it is so opaque, the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan are highly visible to the American public. It would be extremely difficult for anyone to justify funding them once they are over.

At this point, the Pentagon asking Congress to pay for a nonexistent war would be preferable to Congress using pork to lose a real one. But because it has insisted on funding the war this way, that is exactly the situation the Bush administration is facing. If Congress passes the bill in its current form, Bush will have to make good on his veto threat, thus embroiling him in consecutive standoffs with Congress. The only way he can avoid that confrontation is if the Democrats’ pork-for-votes scheme fails and Pelosi is forced to pass a “clean supplemental” that includes neither limitations nor irrelevant spending.

Next year, spare us the spectacle.

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