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Funding the War, Neglecting the Veterans

May 12, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

It seems like an outright contradiction. Blue Dog Democrats are threatening to block a part of the emergency war supplemental that would expand education benefits for returning soldiers because its $51.8 billion ten-year pricetag (pdf) is not offset. At the same time, many of the Blue Dogs will likely vote for the bills underlying $162.5 billion in war funding, which is also not offset (see how Blue Dogs voted on last year’s war supplemental here). Both seem to violate Congress’ pay-as-you-go budgeting rule, which requires spending to be either budget neutral or offset with a corresponding plan for revenue.

Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) asks the obvious question: "How can the Blue Dog Coalition possibly say that an expansion of education benefits is too costly when their votes to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight in Iraq violate the same pay-as-you-go rules they claim to so deeply respect?

But Hinchey’s question is actually flawed. As Craig Jennings of OMB Watch points out, It just so happens that pay-as-you-go rules only apply to direct spending, such as the proposed program to expand college funding for veterans. The war funding in the emergency supplemental is considered discretionary spending, thus technically not subject to pay-as-you-go. The confusion is that direct spending is generally thought of as money that is authorized outside of the regular budget process, a definition that seems to include emergency supplementals. However, there is a loophole in the pay-as-you-go rules that exempt emergency supplementals so that Congress can quickly authorize money for important, unforseen expenditures.

Blue Dogs are simply sticking to pay-as-you-go rules, one of the coalition’s “key principles.” On the other hand, Blue Dog Stanford Bishop (D-GA) writes on their website that “the Blue Dogs are committed to addressing the serious, long-term fiscal challenges facing the United States,” and the argument can be made that using emergency supplementals over and over again to fund the ongoing war in Iraq is bad fiscal policy. In fact, it’s an argument that has been made repeatedly. For example, this GovExec article from 2006:

>The Bush administration, with Congress’s cooperation, has insisted on paying for the Iraq war through supplemental spending bills. The funding is not included in the president’s annual budgets or, in most cases, in the congressional budget resolutions, and it is considered separately from the regular appropriations bills. The money is not counted in the budget deficit estimates that the administration routinely releases. Nor is it counted against any budget caps that Congress has set for itself to abide by throughout the year.
>"At the outset [of the war], a justification could be made that it was an emergency," said William Hoagland, budget adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. These days, Hoagland added, “it does seem that this is not something that is unexpected.”
>But if Congress and the White House actually put the Iraq war properly on the federal books, other budget priorities – not to mention local pork projects – would feel the squeeze.

For more on the problems with supplemental spending, see this background briefer (pdf) from OMB Watch.

At this point, Congress has already approved more than $350 billion in emergency supplemental funding for the Iraq war. It’s an unprecedented level of supplemental spending. Maybe Blue Dogs should expand their fiscal platform to include a principled opposition to misused supplementals. It would probably make a lot of their fellow Democrats happy.

BarbinMD has a list of Blue Dog office phone numbers up at Daily Kos. Give them a call.

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