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Senate’s budget resolution includes Feingold amendment making war spending deficit neutral April 29, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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Shaping the environment in which you operate is critical to a mission’s success, as diplomats, aid workers, and troops in the field well know.  Even though the two are not the same – implementation matters even in favorable circumstances – they are very directly related.

For those back in Washington, the most critical responsibility is to prioritize our government’s activities wisely and to fund those priorities responsibly, taking into account our ability to pay both now and in the future.  Our leaders have yet to fulfill this mission with respect to defense spending, as Dr. Gordon Adams and Matt Leatherman described in yesterday’s op-ed in The Hill.

During last week’s mark-up of the budget resolution, however, Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) led the Senate Budget Committee in a small but meaningful effort to shape the environment in which future leaders may better fulfill this mission.  He did so by introducing an amendment requiring that overseas contingencies be funded either in a deficit neutral manner or, in truly unforeseen circumstances, through emergency supplemental appropriation.

“My amendment requires that we pay for those costs rather than continue to add them to the budget deficit,” Feingold commented. “My amendment permits them to be offset over ten years, to lessen the immediate fiscal impact on the economy, but it does require that we enact policies now that ensure deficit neutrality for any additional spending on the wars.” (Minute 32:00)

Remarkably given the election-year partisan rancor, the amendment passed in bipartisan fashion, 15-8.  All committee Democrats voted in favor, along with Republicans John Ensign of Nevada and Mike Crapo of Idaho.

Beyond the din of today’s politics, passing this amendment is significant for three reasons.  Most importantly, it demands trade offs.  Spending in the President’s standard war request must be offset elsewhere, forcing Congress and the administration to consider the importance of each additional dollar relative to activities elsewhere in the government.

Forcing trade-offs leads to two additional benefits.  Having to offset overseas contingency spending requires the administration to anticipate that spending so that it can manage trade-offs elsewhere in the budget.  This is a marked change from today’s process in which future spending is deliberately misunderstood, likely for political benefit.  And demonstrating that overseas contingency spending is foreseeable buries the argument that this that spending is emergency in nature.  War costs are more likely to appear in the standard budget, which is more transparent and better scrutinized, as a consequence.

Passing this amendment will not bring discipline to defense spending on its own, however.  It can do no more than shape that environment, and only with a very light touch.  Process-wise, it is limited in the same way that all Senate rules are – it can be waived at will by the appropriators subject to it.  When push comes to shove, such a waiver is probable.

Yet most critical is the fact that the rule proposed in this amendment does not confront our ballooning defense costs head-on.  Offsetting war requests elsewhere in the government is insufficient discipline for a budget that has doubled in less than a decade, growing far out of proportion to our purported priorities and, indeed, to the Defense Department’s ability to absorb the cash.  Senator Feingold’s amendment helps shape the environment, but the time has come to execute this mission.  Congress and the administration must show fiscal discipline, set clear defense priorities, and fund only those things that make the list.

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