Congress Must Engage in Serious Debates Over Iraq, Budget

Posted February 6, 2007 at 4:02pm

Congress has on its plate two huge issues of immense significance for the country now and for its future: the Iraq War and the federal budget. Neither will be easy to resolve in the short term, through whatever fixes we employ to get through the next year, or in the long term, when we pass the problems along to future generations. Both are crying out for serious debate and mature discussion of the difficult trade-offs we have. [IMGCAP(1)]

Both need debate not just for Congress and the political elites, but also to inform and stimulate voters who will set the parameters for the tough choices our politicians will face and for the nature of the presidential campaign ahead — the most open and freewheeling set of contests in our lifetime.

Will we get these debates? The answer to that question will go a considerable way to telling us if we have restored a reasonable facsimile of a deliberative legislative branch. On the war, the arcane maneuvers around Monday’s motion to proceed on debate on Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) resolution — a rare threat to filibuster a motion to proceed, the failure by a wide margin to invoke cloture, the negotiations around four separate resolutions (all symbolic, but with serious weight to the symbolism) — made the Senate an easy target for critics of its pomposity and lack of seriousness.

No question, much of the maneuvering, despite the frequent protestations to the contrary, was about election politics in 2008 — what votes would Senators up next time have to defend, and what would the many presidential candidates in the Senate have as traction in their campaigns? And no question, there are multiple layers of hypocrisy here — if the resolutions are symbolic and meaningless, why pour so much energy into preventing a debate and vote on them? If a surge in troops is so wrong, why are so many of the critics people who have advocated an increase in troops for three years?

The resolutions are in fact symbolic. They will not change policy on the ground, either by ending the surge or better protecting the troops. Even if Congress were to decide, as President Bush and Vice President Cheney have dared it to try, to cut off the funds for the war, it would not change things until Oct. 1 at the earliest, since Congress already has appropriated ample money for the president to use as he wishes in Iraq through the current fiscal year.

But a real debate on Iraq would be far more than symbolic. There is no easy course to follow there. As the National Intelligence Estimate says quite clearly, the conditions on the ground have deteriorated markedly, and the likelihood of a surge of 21,500 troops (17,500 of them in Baghdad) reversing that trend is slim. In some ways, this “surge” itself is symbolic, since it will fall far short of the numbers Gen. David Petraeus himself has written are required, given the population in Baghdad, to make an effective counterinsurgency.

At the same time, the NIE makes clear that a precipitous withdrawal would lead to chaos and bloodshed far beyond what we have seen. The worst-case scenarios in Iraq — including widespread slaughter of civilians on a scale much beyond what currently is taking place and the eventual takeover by a radical Shiite dictatorship in league with the mullahs in Iran and the leaders of Hezbollah — would be utterly disastrous for America and the world.

We need a real debate on these realities and the real and excruciatingly difficult choices we face. It can come on the various resolutions, or it can come through a meaningful, structured debate on Iraq — ideally, one set up over several days with a number of Senators, including Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Warner, taking leadership roles, with parts of it structured into Oxford-style dialogues. One way to do this is to take the filibuster on the motion to proceed and turn it into a real old-style filibuster. Nothing would engage the public and the press more than if we went around the clock for several days debating Iraq.

Iraq and the budget, of course, are not separate issues but are inextricably linked. I applaud Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman for putting the war’s costs directly into the budget this time, after a long and utterly irresponsible practice of hiding the war costs from any discussion of budget trade-offs by putting them into supplemental and emergency appropriations. But the fact is that the costs of the war still are not reflected in the president’s five-year projections. These costs are staggering. According to The Washington Post, the overall costs of Iraq, Afghanistan and associated battles in the war on terror already are at $661 billion. How have we paid for all these costs? By imposing higher and higher burdens on our children and grandchildren.

The discussion of war costs and the larger discussion, such as it is, of budget trade-offs, is simply surreal. Bush is against tax increases and for larger tax cuts — no matter what the costs of government. If the costs of fighting the war on terror — costs we all know we have to pay — were to jump $1 trillion, he would still be for more tax cuts and against any increases. Is there no connection made between outlays and intake? I hope Bob Novak was wrong when he said that McCain has taken the Grover Norquist “no tax ever” pledge — it is a formula for economic catastrophe in the next decade as entitlement and defense-driven outlays will burgeon to 25 percent of gross domestic product, while revenues will be around 17 percent.

The overall budget projections by the administration are simply disingenuous. This is not new for this White House; virtually all budget projections by administrations are filled with legerdemain (call it ledger-demain.) But the long-term budget crisis we face is so severe now that this level of dishonesty cannot be tolerated. To pick just one glaring example, the president’s budget keeps the alternative minimum tax in place — even as the president and almost everybody else in politics is calling for a fix that will cost close to another trillion bucks over 10 years.

Just as on the war, we need a real and honest Oxford-style debate on our deficit and debt disaster ahead — before the economic ship hits the iceberg or is put on a course that cannot be corrected in time. Fortunately, Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) and many of their colleagues understand the problem. Now they must find a way to present it to their colleagues, the presidential candidates and the public.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.