Spinning the Supp

Bush’s Supplemental Budget Nonsense

Scott Lilly examines why the spinmeisters at the White House are blowing smoke instead of debating the real issues in Iraq.

While Democrats struggle to find the votes necessary to move this year’s supplemental appropriation bill through Congress and to the president’s desk for his signature, the Bush administration is having a field day blasting “the supp” through its still-formidable media machine. As is typical in the Rovian era of public discourse, much of the criticism is baseless.

The White House makes three major points with respect to the supplemental: 

  1. Congress has been wasting time and playing partisan games with legislation that provides funds desperately needed by troops in the field.
  2. Congress has crammed the legislation full of unrelated “political pork,” with $21 billion in additional spending above the levels contained in the president’s request.
  3. Congress is trying to micromanage the war in Iraq and make decisions that should be left to the generals at the Pentagon and commanders in the field.

Let’s examine each of these charges in turn, beginning with the laughable charge of delayed funding. Ideally, all money needed for funding government activities each year should be provided in the regular appropriation bills, which are supposed to be enacted before the beginning of each fiscal year. During the Bush administration, that system has almost entirely broken down. 

In large measure this is due to the administration’s attempt to mask the huge cost of the Iraq war by leaving much of the cost out of the regular budget request for the coming year and then coming back to Congress each spring with an emergency must-pass supplemental spending proposal. The result has been massive supplemental appropriation bills in every year since preparations for the invasion of Iraq began in 2002. 

The annual cost of military operations in Iraq can be estimated with considerable accuracy at the time the president’s budget for the coming fiscal year is submitted. Yet the Bush White House has chosen to delay the request, cogitate on the exact amounts required for 12 or 13 months, and then announce with great vibrato that the troops are in dire need of resources and that Congress must act immediately. 

This “bum’s rush” approach to federal budgeting is aimed not just at avoiding the embarrassing questions that Congress might raise with respect to how effectively funds already provided to the administration have been spent. It is also designed to limit Congress’ ability to make its own judgments about what resources the troops require and what assistance should be handed over to the Iraqi government. This is simply a further reflection of the view long held by this White House that the Constitution’s granting of the power of the purse to Congress was obviously a clerical error that the administration is more than ready to correct.

Last year, when the Republican Congress received a $90 billion supplemental spending request from the White House on February 16, there was little commotion outside of the Pentagon on the slow pace of congressional action. Even when Congress decided to go home for Memorial Day without acting on that request, there was no Rose Garden address, press conference, or radio address demanding action.

The Fiscal Year 2006 Supplemental did not finally clear the Congress until June 2006. 

The truth is that while the Pentagon will need more money by mid-summer, the need for funds this April is no greater than it was last April. The Secretary of Defense has authority to temporarily move funds from less urgent activities within the Department to insure that all requirements of troops in the field are met in full.

What’s more, a review of Pentagon finances by the Congressional Research Service two weeks ago concluded that the Department has sufficient funds to continue all anticipated Iraq operations until mid- to late July. Independent sources at the Pentagon indicate that current funds will carry the U.S. armed forces at least through the end of June. 

The second attack against the supplemental bill was expressed in the president’s own words on April 3, when he said that the current supplemental spent “billions of dollars on pork barrel projects completely unrelated to the war.”  This argument is also misleading. 

First of all, it implies that the president’s request to Congress involved only money for the Iraq war. That is clearly not the case. Contained in the request were funds for federal prisons, Kosovo debt relief, flood control on the Mississippi, nutrition programs in Africa, educational and cultural exchange activities around the world, disease control in South Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, and salaries for U.S. marshals. 

 The request spread additional funding across seven major departments of the federal government. Such items were not only contained in the White House request for this year’s supplemental but have been part of nearly every supplemental the president has signed since the beginning of the Iraq war. One quarter of the money in last year’s $94 billion “Iraq” supplemental was directed at a variety of domestic programs. 

But equally misleading is the implication that the funds added by Congress were largely “pork barrel projects” and that these items were added for the purpose of buying votes. Of the $21 billion that the House of Representatives added to the president’s original request, $3 billion was subsequently requested by the administration, leaving a difference of $18 billion between what the president requested and what the House provided. 

What is remarkable is that so little attention has been directed at why the president refused to request funds for the large majority of these items and why he and his allies in Congress continue to oppose their inclusion in the supplemental. 

Among these items is $3.4 billion for upgrading medical care for returning Iraq war veterans. These funds would be aimed at cleaning up Walter Reed and upgrading other military and veterans medical facilities, many of which are as bad as or worse than Walter Reed. These funds would also go toward greatly expanding the capacity to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in both military and veterans medical facilities.

The bill also includes $1 billion for enhancing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and $1.4 billion that was not requested but is urgently need to fill a shortfall in funds needed to pay the Basic Allowance for Housing to military families through the end of the current fiscal year. In addition, the bill addressed a number of pressing domestic needs not included in the president’s proposal. These include: $1.25 billion for improving port security in line with the recommendations of numerous experts, including the Rudman-Hart Commission; $1.25 billion for better bomb-detection equipment in our airports; and $1 billion to purchase vaccines needed to protect us from a global pandemic.

Moreover, a number of federal programs are running out of money and will have to shut down or reduce services between now and October if funding is not provided in the supplemental. These include the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which will require $750 million to be able to cover expected shortfalls in 14 states, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which needs $400 to operate through the end of the year.

Another $400 million was added to prevent the termination of a long-standing federal program that provides payments to rural school districts—in which a major portion of the land is held by the federal government and therefore not subject to property tax.  More than 700 counties across 40 states would be affected by the termination. 

The bill also provides $500 million for federal wildfire suppression efforts. The emergency reserve funds for this program are largely depleted because 2006 wildfire season was the most expensive on record. None of these funds can be used until or unless currently available funds are exhausted. 

The Rovian noise machine has managed to deflect virtually all reporting on the supplemental away from whether Congress was correct in proposing to strengthen our military presence in Afghanistan, improve the quality of medical care to returning veterans, prepare for pandemic flu, secure our ports, or prevent impoverished elderly citizens from having their utilities shut off. Virtually all reporting on the measure has centered on a small fraction of the funds added by Congress, those provided for agriculture disaster assistance.  In fact, the White House has spent most of its time attacking only a few small items within the $3.7 billion provided in the bill for farm disaster assistance. 

The agriculture package in total equals about one-fifth of the increases proposed in the House version of the supplemental. Whether or not disaster assistance should be provided has been a source of heated controversy between the administration and Congress since before the Democratic takeover of both houses last November. It was in fact a major sticking point in the completion of last year’s supplemental. 

These are the facts. In 2005 over 80 percent of U.S. counties were designated as agricultural disaster areas. In 2006 over 60 percent were thus designated. Extreme weather conditions have resulted in severe crop losses in many areas and funds to mediate those losses have been exhausted. Significant numbers of farmers believe that they will not be able to obtain sufficient credit to continue operations between now and the fall harvest. The $3.7 billion represents a heavily scaled-back version of the original demands of farm state members of Congress for help. 

The White House has not directed attention at the bulk of the funding in this proposal, which would go to the large numbers of farmers who have suffered serious losses in producing crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans. Instead, administration officials have derided assistance to the smaller numbers of producers of crops such as spinach, fish, and peanuts. 

All of these programs combined represent a tiny portion of the farm disaster assistance and only 1 percent or 2 percent of the additions that Congress made to the supplemental. In each instance the facts are at considerable variance with the White House’s characterization of the programs. 

Two examples are the $25 million for spinach producers and the $5 million for aquaculture.   Contrary to what has appeared in print so far, both items are aimed at providing partial relief to producers who were damaged as a direct result of public health actions taken by the federal government. After e. coli was identified in some shipments of fresh spinach, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked producers in three counties in California to initiate a voluntary recall of all shipments. The FDA had no authority to force a recall.  Ultimately it was determined that spinach from only one producer was contaminated, but the combined losses for producers who voluntarily recalled or withheld shipments of non-contaminated spinach exceeded $100 million.   

Similarly, in October of last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture became concerned that a virus affecting fish in some aquaculture operations in the Midwest might spread and affect other fish populations.  The USDA moved to limit shipments, including shipments of fish that were perfectly healthy.  Many producers of healthy fish were hit with heavy losses as a result of that action. 

The issue in both instances is whether producers should bear the entire burden of this loss or whether the federal government should cover a portion of it.

There is also more to the $74 million peanut storage proposal than the White House has to date wanted to discuss.  That provision is in fact little more than a continuation of a program to assist peanut farmers in reducing crop spoilage that was signed into law by President Bush in the 2002 farm bill and expired in 2006. When signing the bill in May of 2002, Bush said:

“Farming is the first industry of America—the industry that feeds us, the industry that clothes us, and the industry that increasingly provides more of our energy… The success of America’s farmers and ranchers is essential to the success of the American economy.”

A central component of the White House attack on the supplemental has been the argument that these provisions involving peanuts, spinach, and so on were part of an effort to buy votes in opposition to the war. While no one is likely to know all of the demands and assurances that are given with respect to the passage of any legislation, there are several things that are clear regarding the agricultural disaster assistance contained in this supplemental. 

The first is that demands for its inclusion were made by farm-state members months before the Appropriations Committee began putting a package together. Second, the contents were almost entirely crafted by the House Agriculture Committee, which was not responsible for the passage of the supplemental; the decisions about the contents were determined before decisions on the Iraq language were finalized; and the difficulty the leadership might face in winning final approval of the language was fully recognized. 

Finally, if the inclusion of these provisions was an attempt at vote-buying, the effort was a colossal failure. The peanut provision characterized as overly generous by the White House captured only three of the 12 votes cast by the Georgia delegation on the final package. 

Whatever assurances may have been offered to wavering members during the final vote-counting, they appear to have focused almost entirely on concerns about the war. Certainly this was nothing like the grand “pork auction” conducted by the Bush White House during July of 2005, in which numerous members on both sides of the aisle were contacted by administration officials and offered as much as an additional $50 million in highway bill earmarks if they would change their votes and support the administration’s Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Most egregiously, the White House is charging that the Congress is trying to micromanage the war in Iraq and take discretion away from commanders in the field. That is a strange allegation from an administration that forced former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki into early retirement because he insisted the Iraq peacekeeping efforts would require many more troops than his political handlers were willing to provide. More recently, the president insisted on a “surge” strategy despite the skepticism of top military brass, including the outgoing head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, and the senior commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, both of whom argued that higher troop levels might well increase, rather than decrease, the violence. 

But is the Congress now guilty of micromanagement? The obvious answer is no. 

A Congress empowered by the Constitution to declare war is clearly empowered to undeclare it. It would be hard to imagine an “undeclaring” that would provide the executive more latitude to execute a policy that the Congress clearly has the prerogative to set. The timelines provided in the supplemental provide the president with three more months with which to conclude U.S. operations in Iraq than were allotted by the Baker Commission—a commission on which the president’s current Secretary of Defense served. 

But the real issue that the press and the public should now be focused on is that the supplemental has finally provided a forum in which the most important issue vexing the country can now be joined. If a majority in both Houses of Congress now believe that limits must be established on our commitments in Iraq and the White House feels that commitment must remain open-ended, then we have a vehicle that offers and opportunity for these two branches of our government to find common ground and arrive at a policy that everyone can live with and allow the country to move forward. 

Failure to reach a consensus now will only delay the inevitable, as the president will need more money from Congress and the cost in terms of human lives will continue to climb.  What the White House seems to be attempting with the distortions they have promoted about the contents of this supplemental is an avoidance of compromise or willingness to even sit at the table. 

That will make for a very long and difficult summer. The current success the White House has enjoyed in defining the contents of the supplemental will likely prove to be fleeting as Americans face the reality of more death and wasted treasure in Iraq. 

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His columns can be found on the Open Government page of the Center’s website.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow