Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Omnibus Appropriations 2008

One might be forgiven for confusing fantasy with reality when reading headlines in the major newspapers this morning. Of course, the fact that Christmas is less than a week away contributed to the misapprehension.

USATODAY carried a story on the volume of letters that children around the world write to Santa Claus. There is a real North Pole, Alaska – population 1,500 – whose inhabitants undertake each year to answer every letter arriving at its post office. According to the U.S. Postal service, some one million letters enter the postal stream, a quantity that, so far, has held relatively steady in the face of email and instant messaging.

But the U.S. does not generate the most mail to Santa. The UN, which serves as a “link” among 20 national postal systems, ranks France first in letters to Santa with 1.22 million in 2006 while Canada took second place with 1.06 million. Finland receives the most foreign letters, and replies go to 150 countries. But the U.S. does hold the record for answering Santa mail longer than any other country – 95 years.

Then there were the headlines that George Bush must have thought were fantasies – or at least an early Christmas courtesy of the Congress. Yesterday the Senate passed a $555 billion Omnibus Appropriations bill funding the federal government (except Defense Department appropriations which – other than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – was approved earlier in separate legislation) for the remaining nine months of Fiscal Year 2008.

The House voted earlier to provide $30 billion for just the Afghanistan war as part of the Omnibus Appropriations. This was really the only attempt by the Congress to maintain any hold over the conduct of combat in these two war zones. Other efforts to require a withdrawal timetable or even just express the “sense of Congress” that the White House draw up a plan for a drawn down of U.S. forces were either dropped or were defeated.

When the legislation reached the Senate, that chamber could not hold the line on the $30 billion. In the end, the Senate voted 70-25 to give the President $70 billion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That change sent the legislation back to the House, which is expected to concur on the dollars for warfare, which will then send the funding measure to the White House with no restrictions or constraints on the president.

Some Senate fiscal conservatives of both parties tried to hold out for offsets in reduced spending on other programs, including a separate bill to “patch” the alternative minimum tax, but nothing was passed to lower the cost to the Treasury.

I did suggest that the symmetry between the number of Senators (70) voting in favor of giving the president $70 billion for warfare offered an obvious solution for the source of the offset: charge each state whose senators – one or both – voted for the measure a billion dollars. So as not to but a state’s population in too deep a hole, the cost would not be doubled if both voted for the measure.

Such a deal – as good as it gets with this president and Congress.

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