March 22, 2011

Congress Not Eager To Assert Power of Purse In Libya Operations

When President Obama proposed his 2012 budget, congressional Republicans were quick to criticize the spending increases included, even as they were busy hunting for cuts in 2011. But when the president ordered the U.S. military to intervene in Libya’s civil war, a decision that could end up costing billions, the congressional leadership from both parties had little to say about the expense, preferring to let Obama make the decisions.

While a recess week and fast-moving events are partially to blame for Hill inactivity, it’s a glaring example of the double standard between spending on defense and spending on anything else. Though legislators from both parties have complained about the administration’s process in reaching decisions and lack of a clear endgame, there is no clear consensus on what, if anything, Congress will do to use its power of the purse to limit the Libya campaign.

The challenge is made especially difficult by the tensions, familiar to anti-war Democrats, between supporting troops in the field while disagreeing with policy decisions made in Washington.

“Our beef is with the president, not the troops,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the House Budget Committee. “I think Americans will pay any price to secure our homeland, but I see no clear and present danger in Libya. In this case, I do think that the finances become an issue.”

The Department of Defense said it is funding its operations in Libya from existing 2011 appropriations, and the White House Office of Management and Budget said that the administration is not currently planning to request supplemental funding.

“You have never had a decent oversight of the executive branch when it came to military spending or military initiatives, certainly in the 40 years that I was in Congress,” said former House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wisc., who retired last year. “The administration is in danger of seeing the Congress just sort of say, 'Well, another war, we’ve already got two of them going on, this is just the last straw.'”

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has been a key ally for President Obama on many issues, has been among the most outspoken critics of the conflict.

“We argue over where to cut $100 million here and there from programs many people like,” Lugar said in a statement on Monday. “So here comes an open-ended military action with no endgame envisioned. The facts are that our budget is stretched too far and our troops are stretched too far.”

Committee leadership at the House and Senate Appropriations and Budget committees have not weighed in on how the conflict’s cost -- as yet undefined, but estimated to be at least $1 billion -- could affect a final deal for spending in 2011 or the 2012 budget request. If sorties continue, the operation could take a serious chunk out of the approximately $8 billion in budget cuts House Republicans have managed to enact so far.

House Republicans did not propose cutting military funding in their 2011 spending bill, though it consumes about a fifth of government spending. Many fiscal experts, and a growing number of defense scholars, are questioning the traditional leniency Congress allows the Pentagon.

"Discretionary spending is discretionary spending, and it's all fungible,” said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Exum's blog notes that the initial missile assault on Libya cost roughly twice as much as the budget for the United States Institute of Peace and 33 times as much as public funding for National Public Radio -- two programs targeted for elimination by House Republicans.

Though Congress must approve military action within 60 days under the War Powers Resolution, political science professor Andrew Rudalevige of Dickinson College argues that Obama’s advisory to Congress did not trigger the WPR’s “clock,” which means legislators may have to start it themselves with a concurrent resolution. Given the administration’s promises to wind down the U.S. role in the conflict within days, that may be too little, too late.

Regardless, the bills will still need to be paid.

“It’s going to cost, money that will have to be borrowed, and the way the House is plunging along these days, there’s no doubt in my mind it will be paid for by additional squeezes on domestic activities that we can ill-afford to squeeze,” Obey said.

Though Obey was joined by the late Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., in advocating a war surtax to fund conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is even less appetite for tax increases in the current Congress, and the costs of the war will likely come from cuts to other programs.