About Democrats Plan To Tighten Reins On Iraq Spending
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Democrats Plan To Tighten Reins On Iraq Spending info
December 14, 2006
By Carl Hulse
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 — Frustrated by the Bush administration’s piecemeal financing of the Iraq war, Democrats are planning to assert more control over the billions of dollars a month being spent on the conflict when they take charge of Congress in January.
In interviews, the incoming Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees said they would demand a better accounting of the war’s cost and move toward integrating the spending into the regular federal budget, a signal of their intention to use the Congressional power of the purse more assertively to influence the White House’s management of the war.
The lawmakers, Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Representative John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, said the administration’s approach of paying for extended military operations and related activities through a series of emergency requests had inhibited Congressional scrutiny of the spending and obscured the true price of the war.
“They have been playing hide-the-ball,” Mr. Conrad said, “and that does not serve the Congress well nor the country well, and we are not going to continue that practice.”
Mr. Spratt, who along with Mr. Conrad is examining how the Democratic Congress should funnel the war spending requests through the House and Senate, said, “We need to have a better breakout of the costs — period.” He is planning hearings for early next year on the subject even as the White House readies a new request for $120 billion or more to pay for the war through Sept. 30, in addition to the more than $70 billion in emergency appropriations already spent this year.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spending on the military outside of the regular budget process, primarily for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has totaled more than $400 billion. For the 12 months ended Sept. 30, spending on the Iraq war alone ran at an average rate of $8 billion a month, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service.
Congressional control over the money for the war is one of the most powerful weapons Democrats will have in trying to influence administration policy toward Iraq. They can use both the budget and subsequent spending bills to impose restrictions on how the money is spent and demand more information from the White House.
While the leadership has repeatedly said it will not cut off money for military operations, senior Democratic officials said lawmakers were considering whether to add conditions to spending bills to force the administration to meet certain standards for progress or change in Iraq. Democrats have also said they intend to investigate spending and suspicions of corruption, waste and abuse in Iraq contracting.
Since the beginning of the war, the White House has said that costs should be considered outside the routine federal budget because they are unpredictable and military demands can change quickly. Republicans have also said that wars have traditionally been treated as emergency spending, but the costs of the extended Vietnam War, for instance, were eventually absorbed into the normal budget.
But Mr. Bush has decided not to include the costs of the war in the budget request he sends to Congress each February. The Republican Congress has acceded to his request that money be appropriated for the conflict on an expedited, as-needed basis that sidesteps much of the process by which the House and Senate normally debate spending priorities.
But the newly completed report of the Iraq Study Group stated that the “costs for the war in Iraq should be included in the president’s annual budget request,” beginning with the budget to be submitted early next year.
In addition, a little noticed provision added to a defense policy measure signed into law by Mr. Bush in October directed him to include in his budget a request for appropriations for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimate of all money expected to be required for the year, and a detailed justification of the request.
“The law requires that it be done,” Mr. Conrad said, adding that he had told the incoming defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, that the administration must change its budgeting strategy.
But Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration’s view was that Congress could not “bind how the president wants to put together the budget,” though he said the administration was trying to provide more information for Congress and moving toward a more regular budget plan.
“It is obviously difficult to predict the cost of the war 12 to 18 months out,” Mr. Kevelighan said. “But our goal is to provide more information to the American people as to how much, for what and when.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have objected to the administration’s refusal to add the war costs to the budget, particularly when the conflict has lasted almost four years. “It is hard to comprehend with an ongoing event like the war that there wouldn’t be something on it in the budget,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader.
In June, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a proposal by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to require the president to spell out the expected war costs in his annual spending plan. At the time, some lawmakers expected that the provision would be eliminated from the final measure, but it survived and could be held up by Democrats as evidence that the administration was ignoring the law if it failed to comply.
Lawmakers have several objections to treating the war spending as a continuous emergency, which typically sends the request straight to the Appropriations Committee and bypasses the more policy-oriented Armed Services Committees. Mr. Spratt said he believed that the policy panels tended to give such requests a “closer scrub” than the appropriations panels.
Others say the emergency measures, known as supplemental appropriation requests, can become vehicles for lawmakers to win speedy approval of their own, unrelated pet projects. Members of Congress say the Pentagon has also increasingly seen the war measures as a route to winning financing for projects that should be subject to normal review. And there are complaints that the administration’s approach masks the true cost of the war by not providing a clear bottom line number and by not calculating such related expenses as increased veterans care and military equipment.
“We are now going on four years into this war and they are still funding it with these patchwork supplementals without oversight and without accountability,” Mr. Conrad said, “and that just has to stop.”
But adding the war costs to the annual budget could carry risks for Democrats who want to write a spending plan that meets their priorities but eliminates the deficit in five years or so. Adding the war spending at the same time Democrats want to enforce “pay as you go” budget rules would require some of that spending to be made up by reductions elsewhere.
And if Mr. Bush’s budget does not contain the spending and the Congressional plan does, the president’s blueprint could look better by comparison when it comes to deficit reduction. In addition, budget writers do not want Pentagon spending inflated by the war to become a permanent new floor for the military budget.
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