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Congress's spending goes unchecked, with more likely

Lawmakers approve war costs, new veterans' benefits, and relief for flooded Midwest. But 'pay as you go' principle is ignored in the Senate.

By / June 30, 2008

Susan Walsh/AP


Washington - Before leaving town last week, Congress wrapped up a $162 billion war-funding bill and expanded America's entitlement system by giving veterans the biggest boost in college benefits since the World War II GI bill.

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Lawmakers also added a 13-week extension to unemployment benefits and approved $2.7 billion in emergency relief for the storm-lashed Midwest.

Despite commitments to fiscal discipline on both sides of the aisle, none of it is paid for – at least not by today's taxpayers.

"There is absolutely no appetite to make hard choices," says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, citing the war-funding bill. "There's never been any attempt to pay for the war, and now that's being used to expand a major entitlement program for veterans, which might be a good idea, but we ought to pay for it."

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress has voted some $857 billion in war funding, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes $656 billion for Iraq, $173 billion for Afghanistan, and $29 billion for enhanced security – all of it so-called emergency spending paid for with borrowed money.

The new GI Bill of Rights, estimated to cost $62 billion over 10 years, is a permanent entitlement that pays four years of college tuition for veterans who have served since the 9/11 attacks. At the urging of President Bush, this new benefit will also be transferable to spouses or children to help prevent a mass exodus from the military after the new benefit comes on line.

In the House, conservative Democrats won support for offsets for the new entitlement with a new tax on Americans making more than $500,000 a year, but that provision fell out of the final version of the bill after GOP protests in the Senate.

"We were very glad that the House passed a bill that did pay for it and were disappointed that the final bill did not. But in the scheme of things, we're talking about something that costs $0.6 billion a year against a war that's costing $150 billion to $170 billion a year – and we're not paying for that," says Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.