House members support paying for wars in regular budget

Some senior House defense authorizers and appropriators are welcoming a Senate provision in a defense bill that would force the White House to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan operations within the regular Pentagon budget, not as unforeseen emergencies in supplemental spending bills.

Some senior House defense authorizers and appropriators are welcoming a Senate provision in a defense bill that would force the White House to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan operations within the regular Pentagon budget, not as unforeseen emergencies in supplemental spending bills.

The provision could become a critical issue in Senate and House conference negotiations for the 2007 defense authorization because the House version does not contain such a measure.

Yet, while the provision is gaining support among members of the House Armed Services Committee, military leaders and some defense lobbyists are balking at the idea.

Army and Marine Corps leaders as well as the defense industry fear that modernization programs may take a hit if the Pentagon had to pay out of its base budget to repair war-torn equipment and not out of emergency funds, as it has done since 2001.

As part of the 2007 defense authorization bill, the Senate last month unanimously passed an amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would direct the Bush administration to end the practice of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through supplemental appropriations.

The provision gained support from heavyweights such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the defense appropriations panel, and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Budget Committee. It would allow the White House to request emergency funding only for unforeseen expenses.

An increasing number of lawmakers have said lately that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer unexpected expenses and that their costs should be calculated as part of the regular Pentagon budget.

Defense authorizers in particular have grown frustrated at the ballooning wartime funding because they were not able to exercise any scrutiny over it. Congress last month passed its ninth supplemental spending bill since 2001.

So far, authorizers have been left out of the supplemental decisionmaking, which has been the primary job of appropriators.

McCain, who is slated to become the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has vowed to keep his panel relevant, which could mean pressing for change on the supplemental issue.

The amendment, which would affect the fiscal year 2008 budget, requires the Department of Defense to provide an estimate and a detailed justification for all war-related funds it expects for that year.

Some senior House defense authorizers on both sides of the aisle said they agree with McCain’s amendment.

“I am very much in favor of that,” said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. “If I read the mood of the committee well, people are [also] coming that way. I would think that the provision would fare well in conference.”

Hefley has supported the idea of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the regular budget for some time now.

“If you have a big emergency, you have a supplemental, but not this big culture of supplementals we have had these past years,” Hefley said in an interview. “Things get slipped in there that should not be there.”

And with the war going on for years, “things are not so unpredictable,” he added.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, said the idea of including the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the regular Pentagon budget “is an important discussion to have.”

“We’ve talked about that for several years, [whether] we need to fund wars differently other than [with] supplementals,” he said.

Snyder said he foresees a complicated discussion on the matter but not one that will be partisan or that would pit Congress against the White House.

“Frustration has been expressed about funding so much in supplementals,” he said. “I do not think there is a good versus evil here.”

Snyder acknowledged that funding the wars in the regular budget would raise the Pentagon’s top line, which could force the Department of Defense to make some tough choices in funding its programs and priorities.

McCain’s intent “is not to cut funding for defense,” Snyder said, but rather to have a more thorough authorization.

“I would welcome the opportunity to have a say in supplementals, particularly when they deal with the armed forces,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Armed Services Projection Forces Subcommittee.

“It’s foolish to pretend that supplementals do not contribute to the debt,” Taylor said. “We have to be honest about that. We have to treat them as real debt.”

Supplemental spending does not show up on the annual accounting of deficit spending but is still counted as part of the public debt.

Having the cost for the war included in the regular Pentagon budget, which is subjected to the authorization process, will create more visibility on the effect the war has on spending, said Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“It would encourage Congress and the administration to think more about how they are going to fund these operations and the impact it has on other [Department of Defense] programs and other parts of the administration’s budget,” he said.

Kosiak added that the move may force the White House to make trade-offs between the different parts of the defense budget and other parts of the federal budget.

But some defense lobbyists fear that the idea to include the supplemental in the regular Pentagon budget could have a negative effect on the industry because the Pentagon and Congress may trim its modernization programs and other procurement to make ends meet. Any cuts in procurement would directly affect the industry.

Meanwhile, the Army and the Marine Corps, which are the services utilized the most in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pay for the repair of their worn-out equipment with the help of supplementals.

“We rely on supplemental funds to pay for our reset program, because reset costs are directly tied to damage and wear resulting from contingency operations,” said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s chief.

“There is an invalid belief on the part of some that the Army is getting well on supplemental funding. Supplemental funding is paying for the cost of the war.”

One Army program-budget review covering fiscal years 2007 through 2011 noted that the Army will continue to need an additional $4 billion per year for at least two years after the conflict ends to reset equipment.

The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, also stressed the importance of the supplemental spending bills.

“The supplemental is absolutely critical,” Hagee said, “and if that reset would move under the top line, then at least for us, our top line would have to almost double.”

If the cost of repairs came out of the Marines’ budget without doubling the top line it would devastate the Corps’s investment accounts, Hagee said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

Just as Stevens, the head of the Senate defense appropriations panel, supported McCain’s provision, his House counterpart, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), is also onboard.

McCain’s request “would be consistent with what I did in 1995 with President Clinton and Bosnia,” Young told The Hill.

However, “you can’t do away with emergency supplementals,” Young cautioned, noting that foreseeable expenses should be included in the regular bill.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the ranking member of the defense spending panel, cautioned that adding the supplemental funds to the regular budget would increase the overall spending totals.

“Technically, you could not pass the bill under the budget resolution,” he said. “We do not count the authorization as part of the budget resolution.”