Democrats Stand Back as Congress Keeps Funding the Occupation of Iraq
In the next few days, a Congressional conference committee will likely pass the largest defense spending bill in the history of the United States. Despite Democratic lawmakers' promises to stop issuing blank checks for war, the bill does not call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or Afghanistan, nor does it prevent military action against Iran.
Though the current version of the defense budget does not contain funding specifically for the war, money could easily be drawn from the budget and funneled into war costs unless the language of the bill is changed to specifically prohibit that usage, which it currently does not.
"A bridge fund is always possible," said OMB Watch policy analyst Adam Hughes, referring to a measure that would cordon off funds in the defense bill to be used only for war. "But even without it, they would have enough in the budget to sustain what's currently happening."
Moreover, even if no baseline budget money is used for war costs, Congress plans to continue financing the war at the current rate, House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha told the Congressional Quarterly on Wednesday night.
Congress is currently operating on a "continuing resolution," or CR, which allows the war to be funded at the same levels it was funded last year. According to Murtha, Congress plans to renew the CR in mid-November, allowing war spending to continue unabated into the new year.
No proposals to impose restrictions on CR funds have been announced. Last month, a group of Congress members pledged to add provisions for withdrawing all troops from Iraq to any future war funding legislation, but that plan will not apply to the CR, according to a spokesman for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the crafters of the plan. "We're really waiting for the debate on the supplemental to bring that up," the spokesman said in an interview, adding that Lee will probably not vote for the upcoming CR if it includes more funds for war.
Without a specific resolution barring all war funding, it would be virtually impossible for Congress to end the war by the power of the purse alone, according to Larry Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense.
"You've already got the planes, the bombs, the people on the payroll," Korb said in an interview. "Congress can't stop the war unless they pass a bill saying that no more money can be spent in Iraq."
When Congress considers Bush's war supplemental spending bill next year, it will likely tack on several billion dollars, bringing the supplemental to more than $200 billion, according to Murtha.
At that point, the war discussion will come into full swing, according to a spokesman for Senate Defense Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye.
"When the supplemental comes up, there will be a full debate with a number of proposals," Inouye's spokesman said. "We will look at ways to have some sort of withdrawal schedule."
Included in that list of proposals will be Lee's plan to use all supplemental money to redeploy troops from Iraq.
However, the war will not wait for the passage of the supplemental spending bill. In these months before the supplemental comes to the floor, if the administration deems more war funding urgently necessary, it could invoke the Feed and Forage Act, an 1861 measure providing for defense-related emergencies, to draw funds from the treasury, according to Korb. The Act was cited to support the war in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and the Bush administration invoked it immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Citing the Act to finance attacks on Iran would not be unprecedented.
Some measures to immediately restrict war-related funding are on the table. In February, Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced a plan to use existing money to bring troops and equipment home within three months of enactment. Also, last week, Majority Whip Dick Durbin proposed a bill stating, "any military action taken against Iran must be explicitly approved by Congress before any such action be initiated."
"If this administration believes it has some authority from Congress for the invasion of Iran, I challenge them to show me what that authority is," Durbin said on the Senate floor. "Before they initiate any offensive action in Iran, they have to come to the Congress for the authority to do so."
Yet, it is unclear whether such proposals have a chance of getting heard before the defense appropriations bill passes. The bill is usually not a contentious matter, and Inouye's spokesman noted many in Congress are eager to keep it that way. "There was some effort to include Iraq-related amendments, but Congress didn't want the bill to be caught up with the Iraq debate," he said. "That would've delayed action on the general bill."