A greedy Congress misses opportunity

A greedy Congress misses opportunity
Time is running out. We can't be distracted by either Anna Nicole Smith or Don Imus, at least this week. The deadline for filing our federal income tax documents have nearly arrived.

Ever wonder about the final destination of all that money you send to the IRS?

A good chunk of it pays for the pork. Not the four-legged producers of ham and bacon. In this case, pork is a term that can best be defined as waste, pure and simple.

One of the latest pieces of legislation passed by the Senate is a defense supplemental bill that includes timelines for bringing American troops home from Iraq.

There's just one problem. Congress is sure to lose this spat with the president, despite public opinion polls that show most Americans would support, by a fairly wide margin, us getting out of the mismanaged, bloody mess in Iraq as soon as possible.

Remember the promises of fiscal discipline on which the latest Congress was elected? Well, lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem to have forgotten – and they're willing to sacrifice the well-being of our troops if they don't get to indulge their free-spending ways.

Brian M. Riedl and Baker Spring, writing in the Baltimore Sun recently, note that Congress has larded Bush's defense supplemental bill with $21 billion in unrelated add-ons. This wish list, representing a who's who of special interests, brings the total cost of the bill to $124 billion. The result may be the most expensive "emergency" legislation in American history.

Barely a month ago, the new Democratic congressional majority bragged about passing a budget limiting fiscal 2007 discretionary spending (excluding emergencies) to the president's cap of $873 billion, an increase of "only" 3.5 percent from last year. It promised pay-as-you-go budget rules and spending restraint to curb the deficit.

How quickly things change. Declaring this additional $21 billion an "emergency" allows Congress to not count it against the budget caps. This accounting gimmick may hide the spending from budget documents, but taxpayers still will be on the hook for it on April 15.

In what is becoming an annual ritual, these "emergencies" include massive farm bailouts, such as $25 million for spinach growers, $100 million for citrus growers, $74 million for peanut storage and $283 million in milk subsidies. More than $4 billion in additional "emergency" payments would go to farmers on top of the $20 billion per year in regular subsidies – and despite record-high farm incomes over the past three years.

The spending spree extends well beyond farmers: There is $120 million for the shrimp and menhaden fishing industries, $60 million for fisheries and $5 million for those engaged in "breeding, rearing or transporting live fish." NASA would get $35 million. Fourteen states that chose to expand health coverage but not fully pay for it would be rewarded with a huge bailout from the 36 states that budgeted responsibly.

The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – whom this legislation was originally designed for – have become merely a bargaining chip for a Congress that could never pass this additional $21 billion on its own. Lawmakers are effectively telling President Bush that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot have their body armor unless Congress gets $16 million for additional office space in the House of Representatives.

Is it any wonder that polls show 80 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress' performance on federal spending?

Remarkably, the spending spree is not the only way that Congress has hijacked this national security supplemental bill. It also contains a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. This provision alone, which would force the withdrawal by or before Sept. 1, 2008, undermines the central purpose of the bill. It would allow terrorist elements in Iraq to bide their time, consolidate their positions and plan on how to use the greater freedom of action they would have after the withdrawal to attack Americans at home and abroad.

Riedl and Spring note that White House counselor Dan Bartlett recently made it crystal clear in press interviews that Bush would veto a security supplemental bill that contained the deadline.

Congress may have had a chance to actually accomplish something when it comes to changing the teetering course in foreign relations we've been on, specifically in Iraq.

But members of the Senate blew it. No matter how much you hate the war, the present White House stand regarding the spending provision can easily be justified. The purpose of the defense supplemental bill is to keep up the attack on the terrorists in Iraq. The deadline provision – and billions of dollars in extra spending – undermines that purpose.

Lawmakers must show that those promises of fiscal restraint were not meaningless by providing a clean bill for Bush to sign. The troops deserve no less.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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