Before leaving town last month, House Democrats took yet another futile vote on withdrawal from Iraq along a set timeline. They won. They also knew that the $50 billion war bill they passed — laden with a modest withdrawal timetable –would never even reach the president’s desk for a signature. Sure enough, Senate Republicans made sure it never did.
This was all expected. But then it also put Congress on a collision course with an adversary who has everything to gain by standing firm — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Democrats argued that Gates already has authority to move some funds from the regular Defense spending bill to cover the war effort if he sees fit. In leaving town without providing the “bridge-funding” for Afghanistan and Iraq, they reasoned that Gates can submit to their conditions, or else he can wait a little while for his war money. “The days of a free lunch are over,” was how Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) put it. They did not expect any negative consequences.
But after futile meetings with Democrats on Capitol Hill, Gates announced Nov. 15 that there is only about $4 billion in the regular defense budget that can be easily shifted to the wars — enough to maintain operations for something like one week after the current supplemental runs out. Therefore, he said, if Democrats fail to provide a viable funding bill, and quickly, he would draw up plans to fund the war by freezing defense contracts and initiating massive layoffs in the Department of Defense. He said that for starters, he would take $3.7 billion from the Navy and Air Force payroll budgets, then $800 million more from elsewhere.
Democrats allege that this amounts to fear-mongering. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said Monday that military funding will last until early March — which is technically correct, if the last dime is to be spent and all operations in Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly halted thereafter. In order to give a minimal cushion against that, Congress would have to appropriate funds very soon. Otherwise, layoff notices would have to go out before Christmas, according to Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff.
As they join the battle over supplemental war funding, Democrats have two clear disadvantages, and perhaps a third as well. First, the timing is terrible. Reid’s rebuttal of President Bush’s demand for money was that “All we ask for is some accountability — at least a strategy.” That made sense in February, when Iraq was really a mess. But the current strategy in Iraq is working much better than the old one, and so the argument is far less effective.
Second, Democrats will be fighting a rhetorical battle against officers in uniform over whether to cannibalize one part of the military to fund another. On Nov. 26, Gen. Cody ordered Army commanders to draw up their own “in extremis” layoff plans, which he called “absolutely necessary given the uncertain GWOT funding.” His office provided a memo for members of Congress two days later, stating that “The Army expects to exhaust all operation and maintenance (OMA) funds by February 23, even after considering a request by DoD to move over $4 billion from Navy and Air Force personnel accounts and the Army’s working capital fund.”
In order to find more money to shift to the war effort, the memo says, the Army is making plans to “warm base” its installations and commands to “minimal essential levels.” The memo also states that plans are being drafted to “furlough Army Civilians after mid-February; curtail or suspend contract expenditures; and discontinue all routine operations funded by OMA dollars.” The final budget-reduction plans that Cody ordered are due today.
There is a third possible disadvantage for Democrats in this debate. Gates may actually have some leverage over Congress in the form of Department of Defense earmarks. Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), and John McCain (Ariz.) wrote to Gates just before Thanksgiving that the regular Defense appropriations bill, already passed, “contains over 2,000 earmarks accounting for over $5 billion in wasteful spending.” Much of it pertains to un-requested weapons systems designed to help local economies in various states and congressional districts. The senators’ letter recommended that this money be redirected and used for the war.
Because most of the pork in the Defense bill was not included in the bill itself, but in the accompanying conference report, the three reform-minded senators argued that Gates is not bound to spend it on the earmarks. “As the Congressional Research Service [see page 2] has pointed out on a number of occasions,” they wrote, “‘Earmarks that appear in committee reports and the statements of managers do not legally bind agencies.’” So far, Gates has signaled no intention to dip into these funds, although he has replied to his correspondents that the idea is under consideration.
Over the recess, Democrats were sticking to their guns. “If the president wants that $50 billion released, all he has to do is to call the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and ask him to stop blocking it,” Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D., Wis.) told reporters in an unusual recess press conference. And indeed, President Bush could simply go back on his heretofore consistent demand that funding be provided without a withdrawal timetable.
Yet standing at Obey’s side was Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Jack Murtha (D., Pa.), who alone siphoned off $135 million in earmarks for his district, away from the legitimate defense-related expenditures in this year’s regular defense-spending bill. Several members of Congress — from both parties — have similar investments in military pork that Gates could threaten if Democrats try to corner him. The administration could take advantage of this bipartisan addiction, claim the high ground against defense pork, and cause a rebellion against Democratic leaders in Congress, all at the same time.
By simply holding firm and insisting on their conditions until the money runs out, Democrats have yet another opportunity to bring the military to its knees and dictate the terms of a withdrawal. Many Americans would like to see this happen, even beyond the Democrats’ political base.
But given that Democrats were never willing to suffer the political consequences of such a move even when the war was going very badly, there is no reason to think they will carry through with it now. That is why Gates has picked this fight.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.