HAVING WAITED until the war in Iraq started to discuss its price tag with Congress, President Bush suddenly wants the money now, and with as few restrictions as possible on how he may spend the $74.7 billion requested. Congress is responding speedily, and rightly so, with House and Senate appropriations committees planning to take up the matter today. But members of Congress, again rightly, are balking at some of the broad authority the administration seeks in the name of wartime flexibility.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tossed that word around a lot during his appearances on Capitol Hill last week. We're sympathetic to the administration's request to handle the bulk of the war funding, $60 billion, through what it calls a DERF -- a Defense Emergency Response Fund that would give it enormous spending flexibility. But with half that money already eaten up by known costs, such as transferring troops, it seems the military could be more precise about its spending plans and make do with a smaller discretionary pot. Moreover, outside this fund, the administration is seeking far more leeway than it needs or responsibly can be given. For example, one $150 million fund would go to "indigenous forces" in the war against terrorism -- where in the world is not specified. Another $150 million fund would give the president the authority "to respond to unforeseen complex foreign crises" -- anywhere in the world, at the sole discretion of the president to decide that it's in the national interest to do so. The Defense Department -- not the State Department -- wants $1.4 billion for Pakistan, Jordan and other countries cooperating in the war on terrorism, an amount equal to about 10 percent of the foreign aid budget. The Pentagon says this money is to reimburse the countries, but nothing in the provision requires that. Other large, unrestricted checks would be doled out: $1.5 billion to the Department of Homeland Security, $500 million to the Justice Department and $250 million to the White House.
We have our concerns, and have stated them repeatedly, about appropriators packing pet projects into spending bills. But there's a difference between micromanaging or larding with pork, on the one hand, and ceding constitutional authority, on the other. Indeed, in both chambers, it seems that one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement these days is that Congress needs to have more of a say on spending than the administration would like. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) noted after the supplemental was submitted, "The Congress has always balked at giving too much flexibility, because it is our responsibility to watch the purse." Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, put it more tartly. "Flexibility is one thing," he said, "and being able to turn the Constitution into a pretzel is another thing."