Monday, August 28, 2006

Dirkson was Right: It is Real Money

Most Pentagon watchers and fiscal hawks have long been aware of the military’s penchant for throwing everything but the kitchen sink into one or more “ classified projects” lines of the Defense Authorization and Defense Appropriation bills.

It’s bad enough that the ordinary citizen never finds out, even years and billions of dollars later, what these programs were. Increasingly, the men and women in Congress don’t know what is in a bill when they vote. They may not have taken the time to go to the secure areas to read details of the items authorized or funded in the “classified” line – assuming, of course, that special access is not required for the “classified” line. The Defense measures, both the bills and the accompanying “report” written by the committees with oversight of Defense spending, often are extremely long, prompting Members to rely on staffs to read through the bills and “flag” questionable provisions. On at least one recent occasion, a bill was called up to for debate and a vote – and enacted -- before the final version was available for Members to read.

The FY2007 Defense Authorization bill is currently in conference to reconcile those provisions that either were only in one bill or had different language or dollar amounts in the versions passed by each chamber. Title XV of the House legislation – Authorization For Increased Costs Due to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – includes a provision authorizing $50 billion as a “bridge” fund to pay for war costs in the first three to four months of the fiscal year. These funds would be available immediately upon enactment of the legislation and are in addition to the $67 billion already given the Pentagon in the FY2006 supplemental appropriation.

Near the bottom of the Summary Table of Authorizations is a Section titled “Other Programs” which are funded at $3,450,200,000 ($3.452 billion) or just under 7% of the bridge fund. Of that amount, $950,200,000 is for Defense Health Programs and the other $2,500,000.000 (5% of the bridge fund) is for Classified Programs.

A strange thing happens to this $2. 5 billion, however, when one turns to the House Report accompanying the actual legislation. When the report reaches “Section 1509 – Classified Programs,” it reads: “This section would authorize an additional $2,500.0 billion to the Department of Defense for classified programs.” That’s right, $2,500.0 billion, which is another way of writing $2.5 trillion.

Obviously (one hopes this is the case), a typist somewhere in the process hit a “b” when the correct letter was an “m.” But the presumed mistake recalled a complaint by the House budget committee chairman earlier in the week that the Pentagon was providing fewer and fewer details on the programs for which it is requesting money from Congress.

In related matters, the $50 billion bridge fund in the Defense Authorization bill has grown to $70 billion, and the Senate, which must complete work on the Defense Appropriation bill when it returns after Labor Day, has added $13.1 billion for war related costs. These expenditures are at odds with the majority sentiment of the U.S. public which is to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq without disengaging from assisting Iraqis reconstitute an Iraqi state that can stand on its own.

The basis for a government of, for, and by the people is the ability of the pubic to judge whether and to what extent both the Congress and the Executive represent the principles and values of the nation and translate these into policies and programs that are life-sustaining, compassionate, and life-enriching.

Accountability requires information, and information demands transparency. When there is so little of the latter that the direction of government cannot be ascertained, the people’s remedy is to replace those in the current government with others who will be open and accountable to the electorate.

And while I think of it, don’t bet the farm that the kitchen sink – or some of it anyway – isn’t in one of those classified programs.

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