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Set a spending limit on Iraq—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman

The following commentary was published in the Los Angeles Times on January 10, 2007.

Set a spending limit on Iraq—Congress should creatively use its power of the purse to keep Iraq from becoming an indefinite quagmire.
By Bruce Ackerman

THERE ARE LOTS of bad ways for Congress to respond to President Bush's escalation in Iraq. But there is one good way: Set a price tag on the long-run cost of the war — say $500 billion — and tell the president that he won't be getting a penny more.

Without counting the cost of the much-anticipated "surge," we will have spent about $350 billion on the war by spring. Setting a long-term ceiling is the only step that will force the president to recognize that the American people are no longer willing to give him a blank check for an endless series of mistakes.

We have been suffering under a false dichotomy: Either Congress immediately cuts off funds, or the president can do what he wants. But there is a third way: Congress sets the ultimate financial constraint, leaving it to the president and his generals to figure out the most sensible way to spend their limited resources. The president is given a significant time horizon to plan and execute. But he can't run a war without money and must either succeed or prepare a serious exit strategy as the ceiling is reached.

Congress should engage in vigorous oversight in the meantime, but it should resist the temptations of micromanagement. As long as the president stays within the half-trillion-dollar limit, Congress should grant requests for funds without pretending that it can condition particular appropriations on the Iraqis meeting benchmarks. That is a pointless shell game. The president would predictably say that the Iraqis are making substantial progress, and when the money runs out, he would confront Congress with another demand: Give me another $75 billion or you will be undercutting the troops.

We have already learned this lesson. The war has never been funded in a straightforward fashion. The administration has refused to present Congress with clear-cut requests as part of the standard appropriations process. Claiming uncertainty, the White House has muddled its way forward with a series of ad hoc demands for emergency appropriations, which are now adding up to the hundreds of billions.

The Democrats, to their credit, have already made it plain that this muddle must come to an end. The new Congress will insist that the Defense Department treat its war expenditures as part of its regular budgetary request for fiscal 2008. Now all that is needed is a resolution denying the administration a blank check into the indefinite future.

During its first 100 hours, the House has reintroduced budget-balancing rules for the civilian side of the budget. It should act to restore a similar sense of fiscal reality on the military side. Congress should add a rider to the next Iraq appropriations bill that imposes a sensible ceiling on the entire operation. The president won't have any choice but to sign the bill if he wants the money.

Under plausible budget scenarios, Congress will reach another decision point some time in 2008, when the cumulative military appropriations begin to move toward the half-trillion-dollar mark. The president can try to persuade Congress to repeal this limit and argue for more money. But we will then be in the middle of an election campaign, and few politicians will be brave enough to buck the tide of public opinion. Unless voters experience a remarkable conversion on Iraq, Republicans will be joining Democrats in insisting that the remaining money should be spent on a realistic exit strategy.

This moment is comparable to 1968, when Americans voted against President Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War. Despite this clear message, it took seven more years before President Ford presided over the painful defeat. We may find ourselves in the same quagmire unless Congress proves more creative than its predecessors in exercising the powers of the purse.