Defense authorizers elbow for position

When the Pentagon submits yet another request for emergency war funding early next year, defense authorizers are going to fight tooth-and-nail to oversee that money.

So far, all supplemental funding has gone straight to the appropriators, leaving the authorizers out of the loop. But that may change, as the Pentagon is expected to ask for at least another $127 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I will argue strenuously against the supplemental going to the appropriators first or only to them,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee and a critic of the way the Bush administration has funded the wars through supplemental funding measures.

The Pentagon will likely submit its new funding proposal around the same time as its budget request in February. “I want the whole thing taken up to give us the opportunity to examine where the money is going,” said Abercrombie. “We will work closely with the appropriators to make sure we get that oversight.”

An increasing number of lawmakers in the House and Senate 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.

To that effect, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) successfully passed a non-binding amendment that would direct the Bush administration to end the practice of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through supplemental appropriations.

While McCain had the support of Defense Appropriations Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — as well as that of Stevens’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) — the incoming chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), has cautioned that adding the supplemental funds to the regular budget would increase the overall spending totals.

But the Democrats who are taking over in January will find themselves in a politically awkward position: They are driven by their focus on oversight of the Iraq war, but at the same time they cannot be perceived as not funding the troops.

“Our troops will be the first priority,” said Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), the third-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel. “We will be requiring that they put the money in the regular budget.”

“We have no choice,” he added. “We are going to approve the supplemental, but not until after a lot of discussion.” 

With an eye on checks and balances, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants to reinstitute the oversight and investigations subcommittee, which the Republicans eliminated after 1994 as they sought to reduce committee footprint.

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) is likely to head that subcommittee. He has expressed interest in chairing it and several Democrats said he has support for the position.

The committee members are also looking to reorganize the subcommittees. The subcommittee that Abercrombie would chair, for example, would be called the Airland subcommittee. It is now called Tactical Air and Land Forces.

That subcommittee would focus on the Army and Air Force, and would tackle such issues as tactical bombers, vehicles, body and vehicle armor, the readiness of National Guard and Reserve forces, the Future Combat Systems and the Stryker armored vehicle, among others, said Abercrombie.

Meanwhile, the current Projection Forces subcommittee will turn into the Seapower Committee, which will deal with Navy and Marine Corps issues, including aircraft, Abercrombie said.

“It parallels more what the appropriators do to marry up authorization and appropriations,” he said. Those two subcommittees will also match up with their namesakes in the Senate Armed Services Committee.