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'Emergency' End Run

Friday, May 13, 2005

"OCCASIONALLY there is need to modify the President's budget to recognize special circumstances that could not be foreseen when the President's budget was transmitted to Congress." So explains the Office of Management and Budget Web site in its section on supplemental budget requests. True enough, and in a world of rational budgeting, you'd want to provide a way to meet urgent and unexpected needs.

But the $82 billion emergency supplemental spending bill that Congress just approved cannot fit within anyone's definition of honest, sensible budgeting. For the third year in a row, the Bush administration has chosen to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a grab bag of other programs, outside the normal appropriations process. To call this emergency spending is farcical. Though the precise cost of military operations was not known, there was no reason, especially as the war continued, not to budget for most, if not all, of it in the ordinary course of business. After a single emergency supplemental, the war in Vietnam was financed through regular appropriations.

The current budgetary end run undermines congressional oversight and makes a mockery of claims of spending restraint. Lawmakers and the administration set strict spending limits, pat themselves on the back for their alleged frugality -- and then proceed to bust those limits, with no tough trade-offs required, when it comes to the so-called emergency spending. It's no wonder that the military likes this approach. Keeping war costs off the regular budget books protects other defense spending; it also gives the Pentagon a second chance to win funding for projects that may have been turned down once but can be recast as war-related. But partly for the same reasons, the system is bad for taxpayers: It masks the scope of deficit spending and avoids a serious discussion of what is and isn't affordable.

Moreover, because the war funding requests are cast as must-pass measures -- and to a large extent they are -- there's limited ability to scrutinize and debate what's in them or to excise the most problematic components, whether pork or policy. Thus, the latest supplemental includes a set of unwise and largely undebated changes in immigration law stuffed into the measure during the House-Senate conference. Because conference agreements can't be amended, lawmakers who objected to the provisions were presented with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and they weren't about to leave troops unfunded.

Similarly, the spending measures can become havens for special-interest provisions; though this supplemental may have been more restrained than its predecessors, it provided, among other earmarks, $35 million for a wastewater treatment plant in Mississippi, $2 million for the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences in Michigan, and $4 million for the Fire Sciences Academy in Elko, Nev. Remind us: Where's the emergency?

Abusing the budget process this way isn't a new dodge, but it has grown to absurd proportions during the past several years. The measure just passed contains a nonbinding Senate request that the administration include the costs of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in its next regular budget, due next February. The administration ought, belatedly, to listen.

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