April 1, 2006  

Shadow budget

Why Congress complains about, but won’t end, supplemental appropriations

If Reps. Ike Skelton and Neil Abercrombie had their way, or if Sens. Jack Reed and John McCain were writing the 2007 Pentagon budget, the U.S. military would be asking Congress for about $555 billion, not $439.3 billion.

It’s not that Skelton and Abercrombie or Reed and McCain favor a 20 percent increase in defense spending. They just want President Bush to be honest about how much the military is costing U.S. taxpayers.

And the $439.3 billion figure that the Pentagon sent to Capitol Hill in February isn’t it.

The president has already said he plans to send Congress an amended budget this spring that will ask for an extra $50 billion in the form of a “bridge fund” to pay Iraq and Afghanistan war costs. That will be followed by a request early next year for an emergency supplemental appropriation to pay additional war costs.

In all, with the bridge fund and the supplemental, defense spending for 2007 probably will be about $555 billion.

Splitting the defense budget into three pieces is increasingly being seen by lawmakers of both parties as a way for the White House and the Pentagon to disguise the true cost of the wars.

In comments to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, accused the Bush administration of using supplemental appropriations “rather than being honest with the American people about the cost of the wars.”

Publicizing the full extent of defense spending, Abercrombie suggested, would prompt “questions about tax breaks for wealthy people while asking the taxpayers to finance war and volunteers to fight and die” in it.

Missouri Democrat Skelton, who is an advocate of larger defense budgets, also denounced the use of supplemental appropriations.

“The time to treat it as an emergency is well past,” he told Rumsfeld during the same budget hearing. “It hides the true costs of the conflict. … Congress and the American people must be able to see the full costs of the war, and it must be done through the regular [budget] process and not through supplementals.”

In the Senate, Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, complained that the Army should not be seeking emergency funding to cover costs it knows in advance it will incur.

Through a series of questions to Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief of staff, Reed established that the Army is spending $4 billion a year — “steady state,” Schoomaker said — to repair war-damaged equipment.

“We know these costs are already accrued,” Reed said. “We know we can’t avoid fixing this equipment. … It begs the question, why don’t we put this, these numbers at least, into the budget?”

For McCain, the Arizona Republican, it is a question of the Armed Services Committee losing control over the military.

Supplemental appropriations are handled by the Appropriations Committees and do not go through the Armed Services Committees.

“So, what it effectively is, is an end-run around the authorization process, going directly to the appropriations committees,” McCain said.

Over the past four years, about $400 billion has been handed to the Pentagon in the form of emergency supplementals without Armed Services Committee scrutiny. As a result, said McCain, the supplementals have become a conduit for congressional pork.

The bills have been used to finance such nonemergency, nonmilitary items as a $500,000 study of wind energy in the Dakotas and a $55 million waste-water-treatment plant in Mississippi.

“In last year’s emergency request, I counted $5 million in unauthorized earmarks,” said McCain, Congress’s self-proclaimed “pork buster.”

The military’s emergency supplementals have become so routine and so large they are threatening to overpower other parts of the federal budget.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, complained in March that the supplementals have become “this new shadow budget” that is crowding out nonmilitary spending.

Bush has called for cuts in spending on Medicare and other entitlement programs while asking for emergency supplementals and bridge funds for defense.

“Everything else in the government is going to be subject to severe limitations in spending,” Gregg said in an interview with the online publication Congress Daily. But extra military spending “is going to have no budget process at all; it’s simply going to be done outside the budget process through emergencies.”

Even Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee and champion of pork-barrel politics for his home state, Alaska, said March 8 he is under growing pressure to end the emergency supplementals.

Congressional appropriators have approved huge emergency supplementals with little accounting for where the money goes, Stevens said during a budget hearing. For 2006, for example, the House and Senate are being asked to approve “$120 billion for which we have no justification at all,” he told Pentagon comptroller Tina Jonas.

“There’s a lot of grousing” among lawmakers in both houses of Congress about the continued use of supplementals — but don’t expect them to disappear, said an aide to a senior Democratic appropriator.

“Bush has got us over a barrel,” the aide said. “He knows we can’t reject an emergency supplemental.” A vote against a wartime supplemental renders any politician vulnerable to charges of being unpatriotic in wartime, the aide said.

But that’s not the only reason House and Senate members will complain about, but not end, emergency supplementals.

“They get Congress out of a jam,” the aide said. “If we actually had to try to put all this money in one spending bill, we would have to then go back and try to cut school lunches, spending on national parks and other things that people want.”

The big appeal of emergency supplementals is that they do not count against spending caps that Congress has imposed on itself.

That means “every dollar you put in the emergency supplemental gives you a dollar you can spend on something else,” said Jeremiah Gertler, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer.

Thus, Gregg is right about the supplemental as “shadow budget.” Each year a budget resolution sets a limit to how much money can be allocated to each of the 13 regular federal appropriations bills. But the emergency supplemental does not count against any of those limits. So more spending can be accomplished if some expenses can be transferred out of one of the regular appropriations bills and into the supplemental.

Lawmakers “think it’s free money,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate Budget Committee staffer who was forced to resign after criticizing pork-barrel spending added to post-Sept. 11, 2001, defense bills.

“They can pretend they are being frugal by cutting from the main budget — and then putting it in the supplemental,” Wheeler said.

There is no real incentive to change because everyone involved benefits, Wheeler said. The military gets the money it wants, members of Congress get their pork projects, the president keeps his tax cuts.

In 2005, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution stating that after 2006, funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be requested and appropriated through the regular defense budget. That would seem to subject them to the budget caps.

The resolution passed on a 61-31 vote and was supported by Stevens, the defense appropriations chairman, and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

But lawmakers also carved a gaping loophole in their resolution. If funding is identified as being for “contingency operations related to the global war on terrorism,” then the budget caps do not apply.

So the talk about ending emergency supplementals is just that — talk, said Wheeler.

Even the most vocal opponents of the practice have failed to take action to halt it. “McCain has repeatedly said he would do something about this, but he hasn’t,” Wheeler said.

What can one senator do? “He could propose amendments in his committee or on the floor to start a debate on this,” Wheeler said. But so far, McCain has not. Nor has anyone else.

And the Pentagon isn’t about to make it easy. When pressed for reform, Rumsfeld steadfastly maintains that budget cycle timing makes it all but impossible to include war costs in the regular annual defense budget.

The problem, he lectured lawmakers during his February Armed Services Committee appearances, is that the defense budget sent to Congress each February takes about a year to prepare. Once it arrives on Capitol Hill, it takes almost another year to be passed.

“That’s a two-year period,” he said. How can the Pentagon predict today what it will need for Iraq and Afghanistan one year, let alone two years, from now? Besides, Rumsfeld reminds lawmakers, when the Pentagon tried to include war funding in the regular 2003 defense budget as a $10 billion “contingency fund,” Congress rejected the request as the equivalent of creating a wartime “slush fund.”

“The Senate and the House asked us to fund the war in supplementals,” Rumsfeld said.

As for the Armed Services Committees — the authorizers — feeling left out of the supplemental appropriations process, “maybe there’s a way to change the rules in Congress so that the authorizing committee gets a look at a supplemental as well as a basic budget,” Rumsfeld suggested to McCain.