War funding bill gets a few add-ons

John Dimsdale Mar 16, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Inflation’s kind of the perfect segue to the next item on the program today. By my math the inflation rate on President Bush’s emergency war funding request is running a bit better than 20 percent. Not necessarily because of anything the White House has done. More because of what’s being done now that Congress is having its turn. Marketplace’s Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale’s covering that story for us. Hiya John.

JOHN DIMSDALE: Hello Kai.

RYSSDAL: What is the latest on this supplemental funding request?

DIMSDALE: The House Appropriations Committee passed it yesterday by a party-line vote. The president initially asked for a little over a hundred billion dollars, almost all of it to fund the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the appropriators have tacked on more than $20 billion more for other domestic priorities. There’s money for veterans’ health care, children’s health insurance, levees in New Orleans, home heating assistance for low-income families. And House Democrats have added the minimum-wage increase, which they already passed once this year but it’s languished in the Senate.

RYSSDAL: I can’t possibly be the first one to point out, John, that a lot of that stuff sounds not very war-related.

DIMSDALE: Some of this gets pretty close to pork-barrel spending. There’s $25 million for spinach farmers who were hit by that outbreak of e.coli last fall. There’s assistance for livestock farmers, fish breeders. Of course, you know, Republicans are going around saying they’re shocked to see such blatant use of a spending bill to attract votes and help particular members of Congress back in their districts. But it’s true: Democrats promised to be cracking down on these earmarks. But now, there’s . . . appears to be some backtracking. This is all getting into a semantic dispute over what is an earmark. The Democrats’ reform tried to describe an earmark, and it’s not easy. It took more than a page of fine print. It’s essentially money that goes to benefit a specific district, rather than a generic government program. Crop-disaster assistance is OK, but money targeted for asparagus farmers in a specific valley, that becomes an earmark. But where you cross the line gets kind of murky. One budget analyst told me today it’s sort of like what Justice Potter Stewart

said about pornography: “I can’t really describe it, but I know it when I see it.”

RYSSDAL: Yeah, exactly. You know, you are there in Washington, John. Are the Democrats saying this with a straight face? I mean, when Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, stands up and defends all of this, she’s saying it like she really believes it?

DIMSDALE: You know, it’s hard to defend it in this particular bill, because this is an emergency spending bill. It’s for a fiscal year that’s already halfway gone. Do farmers and fish breeders really need this money so quickly? Obviously, there are some members of Congress who think they do, but the reformers say, look, you’ve got to come forward, justify the need, disclose it, and ideally that will trim some of the willingness to spend taxpayers’ money.

RYSSDAL: Last thing to point out before I let you go: this bill’s gonna pass, John, no matter how big it is, right?

DIMSDALE: Eventually it has to, yes.

RYSSDAL: All right. Marketplace’s John Dimsdale in Washington. Thank you John.

DIMSDALE: Thanks, Kai.

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