This week, Congress will debate a $178 billion supplemental-spending bill designed to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into the next president’s administration. The bill is long overdue, and President Bush has warned that unless Congress acts by Memorial Day, it will mean furloughs for as many as 200,000 civilian defense workers.
This year’s bill is not expected to be as contentious as last year’s, which President Bush vetoed after Democratic lawmakers added provisions limiting troop deployments and setting timetables for withdrawal from Iraq. The Democrats eventually passed a bill that did not contain these provisions, which Bush signed. It was perceived as a defeat for the Democrats, and they are not anxious to lose another high-profile battle with the White House, especially during an election year. Nevertheless, Democrats have signaled their intention to meddle with the bill in other ways, and there are several things conservatives should watch out for.
Sen. Jim Webb’s proposed expansion of education benefits to veterans is a case in point. All Americans can agree that veterans should have more education benefits (the existing G.I. bill provides a significant range of benefits). But Webb’s bill, cosponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel, would provide the full range of benefits after only three years, thus eliminating one of the most valuable incentives to troop retention.
Under current law, the full benefits vest only after six years, which means that soldiers who have served three years and are facing a second deployment — the most valuable soldiers in the military — have an incentive to stay through that deployment in order to get their college tuition fully covered, in most cases. The Webb-Hagel bill would eliminate this incentive, which is one reason Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposes it.
The Democrats will try to attach the Webb-Hagel bill to the supplemental, but lawmakers wishing to expand the G.I. bill have a much better alternative. Sens. John McCain, Richard Burr, and Lindsey Graham have put forward a bill that would increase education benefits without having a negative impact on retention.
Conservative lawmakers should also block attempts by Democrats (and some Republicans) to attach unrelated domestic spending to what is supposed to be a bill to fund the troops. For instance, the Democrats were unable to add an extension of unemployment benefits to the economic-stimulus package that passed earlier this year, so now they say they want to add that provision to this war supplemental. In other words, Democrats wish to use the urgency of funding our troops as a smokescreen to enact new spending measures they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pass.
As a check on this tactic, President Bush has threatened to veto any bill that exceeds the amount he has requested. But Bush has undermined himself by asking for unrelated spending items of his own, including $770 million for international food aid. A better way to address soaring food prices would be to repeal the ethanol mandate, which has cut deeply into U.S. corn exports.
But in any case, the war supplemental is not the appropriate vehicle to address global food prices. Nor should the Democrats use the urgency of the supplemental to push their domestic-spending agenda. While we support the McCain-Burr-Graham G.I.-bill modifications as a significant improvement over what Webb and Hagel have proposed, that debate should also take place separately, away from heated fights over the war.
As long as our troops are in harm’s way, the focus should stay on making sure our military commanders have everything they need to prosecute the war successfully. Congress should pass a clean bill that funds military operations, as soon as possible, and address unrelated issues at another time.