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David Obey Suddenly Makes Afghanistan A Big Budget Issue

24 Nov 2009
Posted by Stan Collender

Two articles on funding additional troops in Afghanistan, both of which were published yesterday, raise some of the most interesting and tricky federal budget-related issues of the year.

The first, from the Los Angeles Times, points out that the cost of sending additional troops to Afghanistan will be significant: somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million PER PERSON.  In other words, the 40,000 additional troops being discussed would cost $40 billion a year.

The second, from one of the blogs at The Hill, explains how House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) has let the White House know he's seriously thinking about proposing a tax equal to the additional cost of whatever the president ultimately decides to do.

Why hasn't the budget cost of activities in Iraq and Afghanistan been raised before?

The obvious answer is that neither the Bush admiistration that initiated the effort nor the Republican majority that controlled Congress at the time wanted to do so.  Not asking anyone to pay meant that the Bush White House didn't have to ask for any sacrifices from voters in the form of spending cuts, tax increases, or war bonds.  That made Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be costless and made supporting those activities relatively easy.

And in yet another effort at the completely discredited concept of "starve the beast," the White House and congressional Republicans likely thought that the much higher deficits and national debt caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan activities that weren't paid for would force spending cuts down the road.  In all probabilty, those spending cuts would be proposed by a future administration rather than Bush 43 and that made the plan even easier.

There's no doubt in my mind that Obey is serious about proposing some type of Afghanistan tax and forcing House Republicans to deal with some very difficult political issues in the process. 

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan  by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes -- including only one or two Republicans -- and was overwhelmingly defeated.

(Question for Bruce: I think Jack Kemp (R-NY) was one of the very few Republicans who voted for the Obey plan.  Were you working for Kemp then and, if so, do you remember if my memory is correct?)

Obey seems to be following the same strategy now that he did in the 1970s, and it will force almost all members of the House (and the Senate if it's offered there as well) to face a number of issues they likely would prefer not to face.

1.  For Republicans, the difficult choices are very obvious. Do they oppose funding the additional troops in Afghanistan if it includes a tax or do they support a tax increase and in the process take away an issue they had expected to use against Democrats in the 2010 election?  If they vote against the troops does that neutralize another issue they expected to have next November?

2.  Do Republicans support an alternative by proposing spending cuts to pay for the additional troops instead of a war tax?  Do Republicans really think they can come up with $40 billion in spending cuts that even a majority of Republicans will support or, Obey-like, do they propose something they hope will fail?

3.  Do Republicans support an alternative by proposing that the additional troops not be paid for at all and by doing so get blamed for increasing the deficit and federal borrowing?  How will they be able to say they support pay-as-you-go when they were unwilling to pay for this?

4.  Do Democrats vote for the war tax and in so doing hand GOP candidates an issue in the 2010 election?

5.  Do Democrats vote against a GOP-sponsored alternative that would pay for the additional troops with spending cuts?

6.  If the war tax and spending cuts are defeated and that occurs before health care reform is approved, does that make paying for health care harder because the two issues suddenly seem to be connected?


I seriously doubt that Jack voted for the Obey plan because he was never a deficit hawk, nor was he especially concerned about cutting government spending. His fear was that efforts to balance the budget would necessarily fall heavily on higher taxes. Kemp's view was that tax rate reductions would lead to faster growth, which would reduce demands for government assistance and reduce government's share of the economy if its growth could be limited to less than the growth of GDP. Thus he thought spending limits made more sense than spending cuts. I think Jack also thought it was okay to run modest deficits; again, as long as the growth of debt was less than the growth of GDP.

Not so Sure this is a Brilliant Political Move

I am not a military hawk so maybe I am biased but I think this could blow back on Obey. As I read the mood of the country, there is little support for more Afghanistan involvement and even less for tax hikes. So if I am a Republican, I vote no. You know the Democrats are not going to abandon their President on this issue. You know no one in your party is going to say you should have voted for the tax increase. You're not going to lose too many votes to the argument that the Republicans are soft on terrorism! Then the Democrats are then left with sole ownership of the quagmire in Afghanistan for the rest of President Obama's tenure. Maybe they catch bin Laden and then they have a payoff. But if not, it weighs on the Democrats like Vietnam weighed on LBJ come 2012.

Best Idea I've Heard Yet

The only reason this war has even been allowed to go on as long as it has is because it had no real impact (psychologically, financially, etc) on the vast majority of Americans. We only even conscious there is a war going on when we turn on the news. Putting a war tax on all Americans will bring a quick end to this ridiculous war and help our deficits and budget more then anything else. Call the Republicans out on their "balancing the budget!" This also shows that the Democrats are welcome to the idea of working together to pay for things- even if it is unpopular. It shows some character.


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