Not an Emergency

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Monday, May 12, 2008

FIVE YEARS into paying for two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's outrageous that so much of the financing continues to be approved outside the normal budget process, through "emergency" spending bills that must be passed, must be passed in a hurry and therefore must risk ending up as vehicles for other initiatives. Some of these are worthy, but they hardly count as "emergencies" that should be exempt from the ordinary give-and-take of budget negotiations or from the rules that require new mandatory spending programs to be paid for in some way.

This dreary phenomenon is unfolding again in the form of the latest emergency supplemental appropriation, this one providing another $162 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan through the middle of 2009. The House has proposed language that would also require the president to begin redeploying troops within 30 days; this isn't likely to survive the Senate.

In the meantime, other initiatives would push the measure's price tag up even further. Some of this extra spending, such as temporarily extending unemployment benefits, makes sense; it reflects a real emergency. Given the gloomy state of the economy, the persistence of long-term unemployment and the acknowledged stimulative effect that this spending has (the money is highly likely to be plowed back into the economy), it makes sense on fairness and economic grounds to spend this $11 billion. In a similar category is extra funding, beyond what President Bush requested, for international food aid and disaster relief.

Much more questionable is the proposal to cram into the emergency spending bill -- without paying for it -- an expanded veterans education program that would cost $51 billion over the next 10 years. We have supported this measure, pushed by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.); education benefits for veterans have not kept pace with increased college costs. The bill would be true to the original GI Bill, enacted after World War II, in providing a cost-free education to those who serve in the military. But while this is worth doing, it is also worth paying for in a responsible way. Proponents argue that it's reasonable to bust the budget for veterans' education because the same is being done to finance the war these soldiers are fighting. This contention is attractive but hollow: The war spending is temporary, while the new education benefit would be a permanent entitlement.

The House did a good job of keeping pet projects out of its version of the measure; the Senate proposes piling on another $9 billion, including such goodies as $200 million for the space shuttle, $400 million in extra funding for the National Institutes of Health and $50 million for scholarships at the National Science Foundation. If this counts as emergency spending, it's hard to imagine what budget-busting expenditures would not qualify.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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