Myths and Falsehoods: Congressional war spending bills

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

The House of Representatives passed an emergency supplemental spending bill on March 23 that provides nearly $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to appropriating funding, the bill includes a series of provisions that mandate standards for training, equipping, and resting combat troops; establish security benchmarks for the Iraqi government; and, most notably, require that U.S. combat forces begin to withdraw from Iraq in March 2008 and leave Iraq completely by September 1, 2008. On March 29, the Senate passed a similar spending bill that provides funds for both wars and also mandates that U.S. troops begin redeploying from Iraq within 120 days of the bill's passage, with a nonbinding goal of ending combat operations in Iraq by March 31, 2008. In reporting on the subsequent standoff between Congress and the White House stemming from the inclusion of these withdrawal plans, media figures and news outlets have uncritically reported numerous baseless and misleading criticisms that Bush and members of his administration have directed toward the Democratic leadership:

Congress is taking an unusually long time to present Bush with a war funding bill

Pledging to veto any war funding bill that contains provisions for the withdrawal of troops, Bush claimed during a March 28 speech that "Congress continues to pursue these bills, and as they do, the clock is ticking for our troops in the field. Funding for our forces in Iraq will begin to run out in mid-April." ABC News subsequently reported that Bush said Congress "is denying the troops the equipment they need to succeed." Yet, in a March 28 memo to the Senate Budget Committee, the Congressional Research Service found that the Army would be able to fund its operations in Iraq through most of July with the money it has now.

In addition, during his April 3 press conference, Bush complained that "it has now been 57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops. Instead of passing clean bills that fund our troops on the front lines, the House and Senate have spent this time debating bills that undercut the troops." In their coverage of the press conference, various media outlets reported Bush's claim without noting that, as the weblog Think Progress has documented, in 2006, with Republicans in control of Congress, it took 119 days for Congress to pass a supplemental funding bill after Bush requested it and in 2005 (with Republicans also in control), it took 86 days to pass such a bill.

The Bush administration has continued to use the so-called "delay" as a talking point. During an April 16 press briefing, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino asserted: "On Iraq, this is the 70th day since the president requested emergency funding for our troops."

The 2007 war funding bill is first to contain "pet spending projects" unrelated to the war

During the April 3 press conference, Bush also said that "Congress should not use a[n] emergency war spending measure as a vehicle to put pet spending projects on that have nothing to do with the war." Reporting on Bush's remarks, Fox News chief White House correspondent Brett Baier aired this claim without noting that every previous supplemental war funding bill contained money for unrelated projects. Indeed, in previous years, the Republican-led Congress, in some cases acting at the behest of the White House, added funding for "pet spending projects," as an April 4 Washington Post article reported:

To President Bush, they are "pork-barrel projects completely unrelated to the war," items in the House and Senate war-spending bills such as peanut storage facilities and aid to spinach farmers that insult the seriousness of the conflict and exist only to buy votes.

But such spending has been part of Iraq funding bills since the war began, sometimes inserted by the president himself, sometimes added by lawmakers with bipartisan aplomb. A few of the items may have weighed on the votes for spending bills that have now topped half a trillion dollars, but, in almost all cases over the past four years, special-interest funding provisions have been the fruits of congressional opportunism by well-placed senators or House members grabbing what they could for their constituents on the one bill that had to be passed quickly.

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The president's own request last year for emergency war spending included $20 billion for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, $2.3 billion for bird flu preparations, and $2 billion to fortify the border with Mexico and pay for his effort to send National Guardsmen to the southern frontier.

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The 2005 emergency war-spending bill included $70 million for aid to Ukraine and other former Soviet states; $12.3 million for the Architect of the Capitol, in part to build an off-site delivery facility for the Capitol police; $24 million for the Forest Service to repair flood and landslide damage; and $104 million for watershed protection -- the lion's share meant for repairing the damage to waterways in Washington County, Utah, at the request of the state's Republican senators.

Congress, not Bush, is denying funding for U.S. troops

Various media outlets have characterized the House and Senate bills as efforts to "stymie[]" Bush's request for war funding. An ABC News.com headline repeated Bush's assertion that Democrats are "undercutting [the] troops"; NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams suggested the Iraq spending bills would leave them "high and dry in the middle of the fight." But both houses of Congress have passed legislation providing funding for the troops in the field. The Senate and House are expected to reconcile the bills in conference and send a final version to the president for his signature. Bush, however, has promised to veto the bill if it includes a timeline for the redeployment of troops from Iraq. So while Congress has demonstrated a clear intention to fund the troops, Bush has said he will veto the bill -- thereby denying funding to the troops -- if it doesn't meet his conditions.

Congress will extend troops' tours of duty by delaying passage of a funding bill Bush will sign

Media outlets have uncritically reported Bush's claim that the military will be forced to extend some soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq and shorten their time at home if Congress does not pass a funding bill he is willing to sign. From his April 3 press conference:

BUSH: In a time of war, it's irresponsible for the Democrat leadership -- Democratic leadership in Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds. The bottom line is this: Congress's failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.

Those simply reporting Bush's claim regarding the strain on the troops have ignored a key point: The administration has already forced extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has curtailed thousands of soldiers' time at home, away from a war zone -- and reports indicate that this will continue.

Moreover, reporting on Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' April 11 announcement that effective immediately all Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan "will serve 15-month tours in the region" instead of 12 months, nearly all media outlets failed to note that Bush had attacked Democrats just one day earlier on the ground that their efforts to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq will result in longer troop deployments and troops returning to duty sooner than anticipated, prospects that he deemed "unacceptable."

Bush made a nearly identical claim during an April 10 speech at a Virginia American Legion post:

BUSH: The bottom line is this: Congress's failure to fund our troops will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. Others could see their loved ones headed back to war sooner than anticipated. This is unacceptable. It's unacceptable to me, it's unacceptable to our veterans, it's unacceptable to our military families, and it's unacceptable to many in this country.

On April 11, Gates announced: "Effective immediately, active Army units now in the Central Command area of responsibility and those headed there will deploy for not more than 15 months and return home for not less than 12 months." According to Gates, the decision came as a direct result of Bush's so-called troop "surge": "[T]his policy is a matter of prudent management, will provide us with the capacity to sustain the deployed force." As the weblog ArchPundit noted, following Gates' announcement, Democratic Caucus chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel (IL) recognized the contradiction in Bush's claim versus Gates' announcement: "What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, extending tours of duty was 'unacceptable' to the President. Today, it is Pentagon policy. American troops and taxpayers are paying the price for a war with no end in sight."

Yet according to a Media Matters for America review of the Nexis database from April 11 and April 12, only the Associated Press and the New York Daily News, Cox News Service, and The Grand Rapids Press (Michigan) appeared to have acknowledged the difference in the administration's statements from one day to the next. When asked to reconcile Gates' announcement and Bush's attack on Congress' war spending bills at an April 12 press briefing, Perino claimed, "I'm not aware that the president knew ... that Secretary Gates had come to any decision.'' While many media outlets have continued to ignore the issue, The New York Times and the Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky) published articles on April 13 highlighting the contradiction.

Other media misinformation on war spending bills

Media Matters for America has documented other instances of misinformation from news outlets regarding the standoff between the Bush administration and Congress over the Iraq war. For example:

  • A March 28 New York Times article uncritically reported Bush's false claim that the $6.4 million for "the House of Representatives' 'salaries and expense accounts' " -- included in the spending bill for Iraq -- was "not related to the war and protecting the United States of America." In fact, the provision to which Bush was referring is for funding for "contingency operations directly related to the global war on terrorism, and other unanticipated defense-related operations," which, according to The Washington Post, is "a highly classified upgrade of Capitol security that has been underway since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."
  • In their coverage of the Senate's passage of the Iraq spending bill, several media outlets -- CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press -- characterized the Senate as "defiant" or as having "defied" Bush by passing a measure he has threatened to veto. This characterization suggests that authority to make that determination lies with the president, and the Senate's action undermines that authority. In fact, the Constitution gives Congress the authority -- and responsibility -- to legislate.
  • In reporting on the House and Senate funding bills, various news outlets have cited the budget standoff that led to the government shutdowns of 1995-96 as a warning to congressional Democrats. But in suggesting that the 1995 shutdown shows that Congress stands to lose in such a conflict, these outlets ignore key differences in the two situations, including that former President Bill Clinton was a far more popular president at the time of the standoff than current polling indicates Bush is. In addition, polls at the time also showed stronger support for Clinton's position on the budget standoff than for the position held by the Republican-led Congress. By comparison, a majority of the public now supports a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
  • On the April 2 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, while discussing a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) to begin phased redeployment from Iraq, guest host Suzanne Malveaux asked CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry, "[I]s the thinking here that even if the White House loses, they win, ultimately?" Henry responded: "[T]he White House does believe they have Harry Reid on the defensive because, if you remember, right after the last election, Reid said that while the Democrats would be tough on Iraq policy, they would stop short of cutting off funding for the war. Now it appears Reid is backpedaling from that." Neither Henry nor Malveaux explained Malveaux's suggestion that the White House would "win" regardless of actions taken by congressional Democrats.
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