A glow radiates from the faces of Washington’s fiscal conservatives these days. The cause: a string of successes, big and small, in their long-running effort to throttle Washington’s band of big spenders. These victories have imbued the determined group of lawmakers who still believe in limited government with a long-overdue shot of adrenaline.
Let’s focus on the most significant of these victories.
President Bush and Hill conservatives adroitly rebuffed the attempt by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R.-Miss.), his Mississippi colleague Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and octogenarian Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.V.) to hold hostage funding for the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and the victims of Hurricane Katrina until the president agreed to their wish list of $14 billion for local pork projects. Byrd went so far as to claim that the real threat to the troops and the hurricane victims came from the fiscal hawks, whose principled insistence on a clean bill devoid of pork slowed the bill’s progress.
"If," Byrd thundered, "the president wants to veto a bill that funds the troops [and] the victims of Hurricane Katrina … that secures our borders and our ports, have at it." Congress, he emphasized, "should not be bullied by the president into neglecting its responsibility… to provide required funds to meet priority national needs." Those "priority national needs" included $4 billion in farm subsidies, $700 million to relocate a functional rail line to make way for casino developments on the Gulf Coast, $500 million to reimburse a defense contractor for previously insured losses stemming from Katrina, and so on.
This outrageous gambit almost worked. Despite Pentagon warnings that funding shortages would become acute in June, lawmakers negotiating the deal this spring exhibited no sense of urgency. Then, late last month, an internal e-mail from a senior Army official circulated widely on Capitol Hill. It detailed the draconian cost-cutting measures that the gridlock necessitated. To minimize the impact to their mission, Army commanders were instructed to postpone purchasing certain spare parts, cancel "non-essential" training, freeze civilian hiring, and release temporary civilian hires. "These are painful actions," General Richard Cody acknowledged, "but they are absolutely necessary in order to continue operations during the month of June"
Ultimately, the president’s unequivocal threat to veto any spending bill that included pork spending, and several timely statements by Speaker Denny Hastert (R.-Ill.) and Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) boxed in the profligate Senate spenders. The result was the tightest military spending bill Washington has seen in years.
Did Washington’s pork-addled senators learn anything from their failure? After all, one would hope that, having had their bluff called, they would abandon the tactic of manufacturing national security spending emergencies in order to insert their wasteful spending items in the resulting "must pass" bill.
Sadly, their spending addiction appears boundless.
Even before the president could enjoy his victory, the latest game of high-stakes national security poker began. Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska), chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, broadcast his intention to strip up to $9 billion out of the 2007 Pentagon budget and redirect it to dozens of social programs.
If this appears outlandish during wartime, bear in mind that this is not the first time Stevens and his sidekick, Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.), have resorted to this shameful strategy to evade spending limits. First, they ignore veto threats and shift billions in Pentagon funding to already sated social programs. Then, desperate Pentagon officials submit "emergency" budget requests, asking Congress to make good on the manufactured shortfall. Bloated social welfare programs benefit at the expense of the troops, who suffer from the uncertainty and disruption that result.
To date, most lawmakers have shied away from challenging this cycle of chicanery. Shifting funds creates the technical illusion of budget neutrality and adherence to budget caps. Months later, when Pentagon officials alert lawmakers to the entirely predictable budgetary crunch, the need to deliver the necessary resources to the troops in a timely manner trumps all else and the additional funding is approved. The result: a devious backdoor way to exceed previously negotiated spending limits.
The victory on the emergency spending bill offers hope that common sense will prevail in future budget battles. The right combination of firm presidential leadership — including unambiguous threats to veto unacceptable bills — and complementary statements from Hill leaders at crucial moments can thwart Stevens, Specter and their ilk from once again using the war as a pretext to add billions in wasteful domestic spending and consciously undermine our ability to fight the war on terrorism.