WASHINGTON—George W. Bush has let out a presidentially polite Bronx cheer for most of the recommendations of the much-ballyhooed Iraq Study Group, a panel he finds distasteful for reasons too elaborate in the psychology for a layperson to explore.
He seems bent on continuing to do Iraq his way, and forces us to brush up on the Constitution: The commander in chief decides the fate of those serving in military. The only real power Congress has is that of the purse—cutting off funds for the war effort, or encumbering the money with such tightly knotted strings that it forces a president’s hand. Whether it would force the hand of this president—one who does as he chooses, even to the point of issuing “signing statements’’ he thinks allow him to ignore parts of legislation he doesn’t like—is doubtful.
So we may well be left, in the long run, with a funding cutoff.
During the fall campaign, Democrats who were voted into the majority in Congress precisely to clean up the Iraq mess rejected a cutoff of funds. They insisted they would not do anything to harm the troops in the field. Nor, for that matter, take any action that might consign them to hearing about their supposedly weak-kneed betrayal of America’s finest for as long as George McGovern has—that is, 34 years and counting.
Yet they must deliver for the voters who put them in office. The difficulty is compounded not just by the president’s obstinacy but by the almost fraudulent way in which the war is financed. The $450 billion spent so far on the Iraq and Afghanistan military operations has not come out of the regular Pentagon budget. It has been treated instead as an “emergency”—and still is, more than three years into the conflict in Iraq and two years after the government of Hamid Karzai took the reins in Afghanistan.
The spending isn’t subject to the usual reviews by congressional committees meant to find error, waste, duplication and other budgetary funny business. The Republican-run House rarely even held hearings on these “emergency” billions before they zoomed to approval. Since no offsetting spending reductions were made—and taxes weren’t raised—the tab became part of the federal government’s long-term debt. “Congress appropriates funding for the Iraq War much like the administration prosecutes it: recklessly, and without being honest with the American people,” noted David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who is soon to chair the appropriations panel, when the last war spending bill was en route to approval.
Yet, for the moment, Democrats are powerless to stop the madness. Another “emergency” supplemental measure to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is being prepared for consideration only a few weeks after they take control next month. Advanced word is that it could be the largest since the conflicts began. Because the fiscal 2007 appropriations measure for defense already has passed, lawmakers can’t force the Pentagon to cut something else. Still another bill to provide “bridge” funding until the fiscal 2008 budget is adopted also is expected, with the anticipated sum of the two measures to be eye-popping. “I’m hearing between $160 billion and $170 billion,” says Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on military budgets. “Nice work if you can get it.”
Congress earlier this year demanded that Bush stop paying for the wars with emergency spending bills. The president, in one of his signing statements, effectively said he would ignore the instruction. The prickliness of Bush’s reaction to the Iraq Study Group recommendations (one of which was that war spending no longer be stuffed into “emergency” measures) suggests he’d rather fight than switch on paying, too.
Voters who demanded change did not expect an arcane argument over whether this billion or that should be treated as a sudden and unforeseen expense. But this is likely to be the unsatisfactory first firefight. Democrats promise hearings to force the administration to justify the spending requests, and may summon the will to make the Pentagon pay for replacing hardware—planes, ships, vehicles—out of its regular budget. The troops would still get their money; rapacious defense contractors might not.
Even this may not be sufficient to persuade the Decider to make decisions reflecting the will of the people to leave Iraq soon. At some point, lawmakers may have to just say no and stanch the gusher that sustains the folly.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.