Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In paying for war, Congress criticizes

GOP lawmakers use power of purse to signal disapproval with Clinton'swartime leadership.

As Congress grapples this week with abstract questions of whether to authorize war against Yugoslavia, its only real grip on US policy in the Balkans takes a far more concrete form: dollars.

The GOP-led Congress is using its purse-string powers to assert its views not only on President Clinton's Kosovo strategy, but also on his commitment to military readiness and his performance as America's commander in chief.

About these ads

Congressional tactics on Kosovo are clearly demonstrated in two emergency spending bills working their way through the House and Senate this week. The bills would roughly double the Clinton administration's request for $6 billion to fund the US portion of the NATO airstrikes and provide relief for Kosovo's ethnic Albanian refugees.

By hiking up the funding to as much as $13 billion, far above the president's request, Republicans are trying to use the legislation to advance their own national-security priorities while firing off a strong statement about the inadequacies of Mr. Clinton's military leadership. "[The emergency bill] will be largely a rhetorical venue for Republicans to voice their frustrations at the administration's conduct - not only in Kosovo but also in ignoring defense needs in recent years," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation here.

Maximizing their political leverage, Republicans - especially hawks - seek to use the bill the Clinton administration needs to fund the Balkans mission to bolster the GOP's traditional image as the party strong on defense. "Recent defense budgets have been woefully inadequate in addressing our country's long-term military needs," says Rep. John Lewis (R) of California, chairman of the defense panel of the House Appropriations Committee.

Still, the strategy is not without drawbacks. Adding billions for defense to the Kosovo emergency bill will cut into any federal budget surplus, hampering proposals by GOP fiscal conservatives to cut taxes and shore up Social Security.

"The great frustration among many conservatives is that the 1997 commitment [to cap spending] is now being tossed aside," says Mr. Wittmann. "There will be a lot of blame to go around when everyone violates the spending caps."

As a result, the Kosovo spending bill marks a key test for the leadership of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois. Mr. Hastert must balance the competing concerns of defense hawks and budget hawks within his party, while ensuring that the bill smoothly passes the House, where Republicans hold a slim 222-to-211 margin over Democrats.

ALREADY, the GOP leadership has held in check hawks who called last week for $29 billion to bolster military readiness around the globe. Instead, both the Senate and House bills have converged around the $12 billion figure.

About these ads

Both bills also include $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2000 military pay and pension increases, spending Clinton also supports but has not yet designated as emergency.

In addition, the House bill includes $1.3 billion for spare parts, nearly $1 billion for depot maintenance, and $800 million for recruiting, training, and base operations - all not requested by Clinton.

The Senate bill calls for $3 billion for depot operations and maintenance, as well as $460 million for munitions and $400 million for accelerated procurement of defense items requested for fiscal year 2000. House and Senate appropriators say such spending is vital to address "critical shortfalls" in the US military.

"Nobody wants to be fighting what they see as Clinton's war in the Balkans," says one GOP defense panel aide. "But as long as we are, we want to make sure our troops are prepared. If this funding is not provided by May, it will begin affecting things like base operations. This is a very real emergency."

Appropriators acknowledge that by increasing defense outlays in the emergency bill, which does not require budgetary offsets, they will ease some pressure of the tight spending caps. "This provides some flexibility," says a GOP staffer.

GOP aides predict that the Kosovo emergency bill, which congressional leaders may couple with an earlier supplemental spending package for farm and hurricane relief, will win bipartisan support and be signed by the president.

Nevertheless, congressional Democrats as well as some defense experts criticize the beefed-up defense bill as wasteful and unnecessary. "Before adding one dollar to the defense budget beyond what is needed for Kosovo, Congress should require that ... waste is rooted out and the interest of the taxpayers be protected," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa. He and other Democrats on Tuesday released a new General Accounting Office investigation that they said identified $3 billion worth of unaccounted for US Navy inventory.

Some military experts agree. "I could look at the current defense budget and point out $13 billion worth of savings," says Jack Shanahan, a retired Navy vice admiral, former NATO commander, and a military adviser to Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities in New York.

"By being smarter, we can adjust the military budget and save," says Mr. Shanahan, whose group believes the current defense budget is 15 percent too high.

Other experts argue that although the US military is less capable today than in the 1980s, it doesn't need to be as ready.

"We are at about 90 percent of the average cold-war budget and there is no cold war," says Lawrence Korb at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a former assistant Defense secretary under President Reagan.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.