Let’s Play with the Money

I’ve been trying to follow recent developments in the government’s struggle to pass a spending bill and came across an article by David Rogers of Politico, who noted that Senate Democrats rolled out a year-end, government-wide, 1900-page, $1.1 trillion spending bill Tuesday that cuts more than $26 billion from President Barack Obama’s 2011 requests even as it holds firm to thousands of the appropriations earmarks so adamantly opposed by critics of Congress. It’s only an increase of about 2 percent in annual spending, but it includes a last stand by the Senate’s old bulls before the tea party takeover.

As is so typical of American politics, top Republicans expressed shock even after they have been working to write the bill and gather GOP votes for passage. On both sides of the aisle, earmarks for pet projects remain as a part of the effort to salvage something from the collapsed budget process this year.

According to Rogers, the bill adds about $5.4 billion for new labor, education and health spending in addition to billions more to meet a shortfall in Pell grants for low-income college students. Included is an $840 million increase for Head Start and $550 million for Obama’s signature Race to the Top education initiative. But conservatives zeroed in most on what they estimated was $1.25 billion in spending related to health care reform — a sure target in the next Congress.

The Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman will be challenged to get the 60 votes needed to limit debate. The costly tax deal with the Republicans has probably made his objective harder to achieve, even as the administration has a major reason to terminate the fight and prevent a Republican short-term continuing resolution from setting up a new melee in February. I can’t help but wonder why anyone should be able to limit debate. If the members of Congress can’t do anything more than stand behind podiums and argue until the government collapses without a budget, then so be it.

To prevent that possibility, the House passed a stripped-down, year-long continuing resolution as a Presidential buffer. House conservatives responded by seeking a two-month continuing resolution to set up the confrontation they want early next year. I suppose that’s to get those lame ducks out of there so the new guard can get down to business.

And the verbal attacks in both directions indicate business as usual. We’re told that Democrats are ignoring the will of the voters as expressed in the last election, and a short-term CR is preferable because the holiday recess is looming. And the year-long House version, referred to by one senator as the “chief executive’s bill,” is “salted” with concessions to Obama’s priorities. That this same senator considers earmarks as a Congressional prerogative brings to mind a saying about living in glass houses and throwing stones. Especially interesting is inclusion of an expansive, handy little device that allows agency heads to move money around. I wonder what that means? My guess: even if the funds are intended to be used for A, they can be used for B instead. Something about that seems a bit too sneaky for my taste.

Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that it had found 6,600 such pork-barrel legislative provisions in the omnibus bill directing where $8 billion in earmarks should be spent. That’s 20 percent less in dollar value from the current year, and all the provisions are publicly disclosed, but it’s still potentially fatal to the bill in today’s political climate. What is it about this that Congress doesn’t understand?

One option discussed is for the appropriations leadership to add language making the “set-asides nonbinding on the president and agency heads.” I’m not sure what that means, but I’m suspicious because I think it’s better to bind these guys. Left to roam freely, they have a poor track record when it comes to taking care of business.

In the middle of this debacle sits the Pentagon, which for the first time in decades may lose its annual authorization bill because of the continued stalemate over gays in the military. “Don’t ask don’t tell” is a volatile topic and it deserves a fair hearing, but not at the expense of the troops fighting and dying on foreign soil. Congress needs to debate the issue on its own merits or lack of them without holding defense appropriations hostage.

If enacted, the omnibus bill would fill this void, restoring about $8 billion cut by the House continuing resolution. It would also reassert Congress’s authority and earmarks, something not always welcomed by SecDef Robert Gates. A prime example: the bill includes about $450 million for continuation of a second, alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the military says it does not want and does not need. It’s the politicians who continue funding it. What’s up with that? Oh, yeah. Look at where the money goes. Pandering to constituents is the driver, not what’s best for the country’s defense requirements.

For Gates as well as SecState Hillary Clinton, the additional war funding is important to implementing Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the defense budget would be cut about $10 billion below the president’s requests — including $1.05 billion and seven planes from the F-35 program — the war funds can be used as a buffer. But wait. There’s that word again. The budget is supposed to be for the good of America. To pass one, why on earth do we need a person or thing that prevents incompatible or antagonistic people or things from coming into contact with or harming each other? Is it unreasonable to expect that war funds be used for war as intended?

Apparently so, and I guess that’s part of the “move money around” shell game. Rogers explains that the State Department’s resources are smaller and don’t enjoy the same flexibility. But that doesn’t matter, because even with the budget reductions, some new acquisitions that might feel the axe can be paid for by hundreds of millions of dollars in war funds rather than the Pentagon budget.

How convenient is that? This would be like watching a slapstick comedy filled with clowns if it weren’t so pathetic.

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