In a moving statement before Congress in February 2009, President Obama made a promise. “For seven years, we have been a nation at war,” he said. “No longer will we hide its price.”
Obama was referring to the Bush administration’s devious practice of using supplemental spending bills – emergency cash transfusions that are separated from the annual federal budget – to funnel off money for war. This parliamentary trick masks the yearly cost of war, which would otherwise appear as one massive lump sum, by breaking it up into bite-size, deceptively digestible chunks.
Supplementals are intended for emergencies in which large amounts of money are suddenly needed: a huge-scale natural disaster, an unexpected war of defense, a Mars attack. The Bush administration used a supplemental to fund the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, then kept doing it … and doing it and doing it. Throughout his tenure, Bush sent 17 war supplementals to Congress, and they all passed with flying (bipartisan) colors.
As someone who’d spent the previous four years chronicling Bush’s slimy war funding ways, I was particularly relieved by Obama’s words in 2009. Maybe, I thought, when Congress and the American people are confronted with that giant, ugly price tag for war hanging from the frail skeleton of our federal budget at the start of the year, reality will hit and plans to bring the troops home – for real – will become more than just a progressive talking point floating in the legislative ether.
However, less than two months after his bold pronouncement, the president slipped in a request for $76 billion in off-the-books war funds. He helped ease the sting of this hypocrisy slightly by promising that the ol’ supplemental shortcut would never happen again.
“We must break that recent tradition and include future military costs in the regular budget so that we have an honest, more accurate and fiscally responsible estimate of federal spending,” he wrote in a letter to Congress.
But 16 months later, the tradition hasn’t been broken. It’s been broken in.
Obama’s latest supplemental spending request, which would sign away $33 billion more for Afghanistan and Iraq, is hovering on the brink of passage. Those billions would be heaped on top of the $159.3 billion that Congress approved (with little fuss) for the wars in May.
Now, if ever, Congress should be fussing – and so should the rest of us. The “Afghan War Diary” released by WikiLeaks Sunday night confirms what we’ve known for years: we’re mired in a war that is failing more and more by the day, a war of hopeless destruction and pointless death. Alliances are ever-muddling, corruption is status quo. It’s clear that, despite our gracious imperial assistance, democracy won’t be flowering out from the graveyard of empires anytime soon.
Going into this week’s vote on the supplemental, the House has particular reason to fuss. Last week, the Senate stripped the war funding bill of most of its cheerier components: domestic economy boosters like funds for teacher jobs, assistance for youth summer job programs and aid for needy families. In the interest of passing a “clean bill,” Republicans and Republican-minded “Democrats” have turned the supplemental into a pure, untainted bad idea.
This round of supplemental decision making is a rough scene. Obama has settled into his predecessor’s war funding routine. Congress members haven’t kicked the nasty habit of smashing piggy banks every time war funding is running low. And activist groups – the same ones that rallied around this issue with fervor just two years ago – haven’t been shouting nearly as loud.
So, what now?
Just because Obama has gotten comfy with the idea of endless funds for war doesn’t mean that Congress and the rest of us need to mirror that inertia.
Sometimes it’s a time to compromise, sometimes, a time to ask nicely. Now it is the Time to Fuss.
This week’s House debate on the supplemental could be an exercise in depressive apathy, with the blessed Dennis Kuciniches of the chamber calling passionately (but practically solitarily) for withdrawal from the War of Error. But, in the wake of the WikiLeaks release and the Senate job-funding massacre, not to mention the wars’ diminishing public approval ratings, this debate could take a creative turn.
This supplemental vote could mark a turning point. It could present a real opportunity to consider and discuss the on-the-ground implications of these $33 billion dollars, piled atop the $159 billion, weighing down on the more than a trillion dollars already exhausted by almost ten years of hubris and senseless violence.
A true dialog in Congress about where this money is going is long overdue. For the past 18 war supplementals, much of Congress has bent over backwards to justify the “emergency” nature of the spending, the standard line being a refusal to “abandon the troops.” However, as numerous Congressional Research Service reports and Truthout analyses have shown, the troops will get their paychecks – and their body armor – even if a supplemental never passes again. The president can invoke the Feed and Forage Act and draw funds from the Treasury if the mess hall cupboards (or the payroll bank) ever go bare.
If Congress members would look past that “emergency” logic, they’d see the supplemental for what it is: simply another round of fuel for the engine of ongoing war. They’d also recognize their own power to cut the tank short.
Congress’s “power of the purse” is its No. 1 check on executive blunders, especially on enormous, deadly, long-lasting blunders like the Vietnam War, which Congress ended by halting military funding for South Vietnam.
The war in Afghanistan has already surpassed Vietnam in length. It’s time for Congress to take a hint from history, to stop loosening the purse strings and start fussing – starting with this week’s supplemental debate.
Maya Schenwar is Executive Director of Truthout.