The U.S. House of Representatives wrapped up 2005 by adopting a $453 billion budget for the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act. It is now left up to the U.S. Senate to decide which amendments to include or not include in its authorization of funding, intended primarily for the U.S. military in order for them to pay troops, continue operations in Iraq through March 2006, and for the military to maintain U.S. national security.
But it is hardly clear to Americans why there are all kinds of legal machinations going on in the last minutes of 2005 in the Senate, on a defense bill largely decided prior to Labor Day 2005. And the debate is not about the appropriations for our military but rather about items which have little to do with the armed services.
It has long been a practice on Capitol Hill to tack on amendments for funding legislation or special projects to other funding or budget bills if they do not stand a chance of being passed as stand-alone legislation. Doing so with “must-have” legislation has been roundly criticized, allegedly forcing members of Congress to approve measures they would ordinarily reject. However, there is a criterion regarding the qualification for such amendments by virtue of Senate Rules.
The application of the Rules themselves has now been piled on top of the bill’s negotiations. Specifically, Senate Rule 28 is at issue, which states that once an Appropriations Conference report has been finalized in negotiations, additional projects may not be attached to such a measure. In addition, that item must be related to the substance of the budget bill being passed.
In this instance, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), Chairman of the Senates’ Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has attached the controversial provision to allow oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), stating that “Oil is related to national security. The largest consumer of oil in the U.S. is the Department of Defense.” According to many Democrats and some Republicans as well, Senator Stevens’ attempt at “back-door” legislation is disingenuous and holds the needs of American troops in abeyance.
The vote on inclusion of ANWR in the defense bill is to take place on December 21, 2005. The Democrats have threatened a filibuster in order to ultimately block floor votes if there are not enough votes in order strip ANWR from the defense spending legislation. But Senate Rules cannot simply be amended to the liking of one political party or another. It does, however, sidetrack the issue at hand which is to provide necessary funding for the military, which was to have passed by October 1, 2005. Military paychecks have been guaranteed through December 31, 2005, only due to a stop-gap measure passed in mid-December by the Congress.
Simply because the calendar is running out does not take lawmakers off the hook from rationally voting on legislation. The ANWR issue has been a contentious once ever since the 19 million acres were purchased by the U.S. government in 1980. Environmentalists as well as oil companies are the two largest groups with opposing arguments, but more importantly is potentially how much ANWR will alleviate American dependence on foreign oil. It is estimated that the 1.5 million acres reserved for drilling could ultimately produce 10 billion barrels of oil with production of 900,000 barrels a day by the year 2025; hardly a dent in the needed supply for a country which devours 20.2 million barrels of oil per day in the year 2005.
And while ANWR is grabbing the headlines, the other attachments to defense spending, which the House has already ratified, includes more aid for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast due to Hurricane Katrina and other storms to the tune of $29 billion, $3.9 billion for Avian Flu preparedness with a provision with liability protections for pharmaceutical manufacturers and $2 billion for low-income heating and energy assistance (LIHEAP) due to heating costs for the winter expected to escalate in price by approximately 30%. And those are only the main items which have been reported, as the bill has been said to be over 1,000 pages.
How many of the additional attachments to the Defense Appropriations Act are indeed relative to defense spending, we may never know, nor will many of our lawmakers, who have but skimmed through the bill. The 11th hour is not the time, it could be argued, to start familiarizing oneself with issues on such important legislation. However, what prevented them from doing so, say, on their recesses before Labor Day or the two weeks recess for Thanksgiving?
The good news is that the troops will see a 3.1% rise in salary, identical to the one which Congress passed for itself. Still not yet clear is how far health and pay benefits will be extended for reservists. The breakdown presently passed by the House is $97 billion for military personnel, $123.6 billion for operation and maintenance, $76.5 billion for procurement, $72.1 billion for research and development, test and evaluation, $2.1 billion for revolving and management funds, $22.7 billion for other Department of Defense programs and $50 billion for emergency wartime appropriations.
With the recent acceptance by the Congress of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission report and with the 2006 Defense Quadrennial Review due in February 2006 from the Pentagon, it has yet to be determined how much they will influence allocation of the funds from this legislation over the coming year. Still remaining under scrutiny are procurement contracts and how much leeway contractors will be given in offshoring military parts to India and China.
Whichever way the ANWR provision is decided upon, however, perhaps it has opened the eyes of the voting public as to how far U.S. lawmakers will go in putting their politics above those fighting a war on foreign soil and their lack of rationale in doing so. This latest defense bill grandstanding is only but one recent example of key legislation being held up not necessarily for the greater good of the U.S., but for individual posturing in an effort to score points within the two political parties.
While no one on Capitol Hill has an axe to grind with providing funding for our military, the funding for troops in the field for necessary equipment replenishment, body and Humvee armor as well as equipment upgrades was promised months and months ago. The behavior of the Congress all year long has not passed muster on many issues regarding the proper funding of our troops. For lawmakers now to use the last days of 2005 to exact attention upon themselves is distasteful at best. They should rather be focusing on appropriations oversight for our troops to ensure that the allocated billions will be properly spent, and that would perhaps curry them more favor from the American people as well.