THE BUSH administration's request to Congress for an additional $25 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is a welcome recognition of budgetary reality. The continuing costs of war are so steep that the Pentagon can't rely, as it had hoped, on sleight-of-hand budgeting and raiding of other military accounts to get through the first months of fiscal 2005, which begins Oct. 1.
Until the week before last, the administration had insisted that it would delay submitting a bill until next year -- that is, after the election. The administration deserves credit for backing off this unwise plan in the face of mounting costs. The $25 billion it is seeking, though, is merely the first installment, which Congress should keep in mind while considering what other spending and tax cuts are affordable. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, the administration's supplemental spending request early next year "will surely be much larger" than $25 billion.
Of more immediate importance, Congress should not write the blank check the administration is seeking. The administration wants the money dumped into a "contingent emergency reserve fund." Only broad categories of spending are outlined -- for example, as much as $14 billion for Army "operation and maintenance." The defense secretary would have authority to transfer the money "to any appropriation or fund of the Department of Defense or classified programs." Lawmakers would get five days' notice that money is being moved around.
The Pentagon needs flexibility in the midst of war. It's true, as well, that lawmakers seeking control can quickly degenerate into lawmakers larding a bill with pet projects. But lawmakers need, at the least, an opportunity to object to the transfer of funds, and complete, timely reporting of expenditures. The administration hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt: Congress gave it extraordinary latitude in emergency spending bills passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and it was repaid with spotty and misleading reporting.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle aren't acceding this time around. "This is a blank check," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Numerous other Republicans, including Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (Va.) and some of the panel's most conservative members, expressed similar concerns. "This lacks the kind of transparency that we'd like to have," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The administration seems to be getting the message: Mr. Wolfowitz promised "to work with the Congress to make sure the Congress has the right degree of oversight and the troops have the right degree of flexibility." That will take a set-up significantly different than the administration's gambit.