Congress stuffs war-funding bill with cash for other items

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The emergency war funding bill that President Barack Obama is expected to sign soon has mushroomed into a catch-all for many lawmakers' favorite projects.

Obama originally sought $83.5 billion in April, mostly to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the time Congress rewrote the bill and passed it last week, the price had jumped to $105.9 billion.

That included money for a new $1 billion "cash for clunkers" auto trade-in program, $2.1 billion for eight C-17 Globemaster aircraft, $5 billion to help the International Monetary Fund and $500 million in earmarks, mostly for Mississippi.

"It's politics as usual in Washington," said Marc Goldwein, the policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Few members of Congress objected to the spending surge. One dissenting Senate voice came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who criticized the bill as a hodgepodge of favors for special interests and lawmakers eager to win political points back home.

In addition, McCain said, the bill is hardly in the spirit of the budget cutting and pay-as-you-go initiatives that Obama has touted.

"President Obama's message to Congress was to keep funding focused on the needs of our troops," McCain said, "and not to use the (bill) to pursue unnecessary spending and to keep earmarks and other extraneous spending out of the legislation."

Supporters countered that the bill deals with all kinds of emergencies that can't wait until regular budget bills are approved, probably in the fall.

"I do not like everything in this bill," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "Each one of us would write a different bill. But I will tell you what I like less: The loss of jobs, the threat of the swine flu, the threat of AIDS, the threat of world instability, the spread of weapons."

In April, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates introduced a budget plan that cut from popular Pentagon programs, such as the C-17, and added money to create a more agile force that could better fight unconventional wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His proposed budget met loud resistance on Capitol Hill from lawmakers who didn't want cuts in programs that support jobs their districts. The C-17 is produced predominantly in California; the Long Beach plant, for example, employs about 5,000 workers.

At the Pentagon, officials called the additional eight C-17s unnecessary but agreed to them in exchange for a deal to reduce the number of C-5As, the largest cargo aircraft of the fleet. The 50-year-old plus C-5As "are old, extraordinarily expensive to maintain and are rarely used," said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.

Morrell said that "current and future demand" calls for 205 C-17s, but under the emergency bill, their total increases to 213. Morrell said that the military would cut at least eight C-5As "so the whole fleet is not unduly large."

The emergency bill is one fast way that Capitol Hill can restore some of the programs on Gates' hit list — and signal that it wants them to continue. The measure provides $79.9 billion to fight the two wars, as well as $10.4 billion for diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the region. It also contains $7.7 billion to help fight swine flu.

It also includes 13 earmarks, or local projects inserted by members of Congress, a practice that Obama and congressional leaders have vowed to revamp.

Most expensive are two from Mississippi, one to repair a hurricane-damaged army ammunition plant and the other to help repair barrier islands. Total cost: $488 million.

"The barrier islands act as Mississippi's first line of defense against the storm surge of a hurricane, and it is critical for their restoration to begin immediately," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Because most of the money funds the troops, it passed easily, 91-5; even McCain voted for it. Most "no" votes were a protest against the $5 billion for the IMF.

Still, lawmakers used the emergency bill as a quick, easy way to fund pet projects. Regular budget items must endure a lengthy hearing process, as well as committee and subcommittee scrutiny. Emergency bills are dealt with more quickly.

As a result, the bill contains items not sought by Obama, such as:

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