Congressman Obey's Path to Peace

By David Swanson

Congressman David Obey (D., Wis.) is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He’s in charge of spending our money. For years he spent it on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without any resistance.  Until last October, Obey maintained that spending hundreds of billions of our dollars on wars was something he just had no choice about.

Three years ago, 180,000 people watched this Youtube video, which was also shown on tv news shows, of Obey screaming at a military mother and denouncing "idiot liberals" for suggesting that Congress use the power of the purse to end wars. Liberals debated other liberals on the question of whether we really were idiots. Now Obey has taken several steps in the direction of joining us.

I reported on his first steps last October.  Congressional leaders met with the president on Afghanistan, after which Obey released a statement that shocked those who had followed his position through the wars. After years of professed helplessness, Obey was now speaking as if he recognizes the power of Congress to fund or defund wars. Obey expressed his view on how to proceed in Afghanistan:

"[W]e need to more narrowly focus our efforts and have a much more achievable and targeted policy in that region, or we run the risk of repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam and the Russians made in Afghanistan. There are some fundamental questions that I would ask of those who are suggesting that we follow a long term counterinsurgency strategy."

And then Obey began his first question with the key phrase: "As an Appropriator…."

"As an Appropriator I must ask, what will that policy cost and how will we pay for it? We are now in the middle of a fundamental debate over reforming our healthcare system. The President has indicated that it must cost less than $900 billion over ten years and be fully paid for. The Congressional Budget Office has had four committees twisting themselves into knots in order to fit healthcare reform into that limit. CBO is earnestly measuring the cost of each competing healthcare plan. Shouldn’t it be asked to do the same thing with respect to Afghanistan? If we add 40,000 troops and recognize the need for a sustained 10 year or longer commitment, as the architects of this plan tell us we do, the military costs alone would be over $800 billion. And unlike the demands that are being made of the healthcare alternatives that they be deficit neutral, we’ve heard no such demand with respect to Afghanistan. I would ask how much will this entire effort cost, when you add in civilian costs and costs in Pakistan? And how would that impact the budget?"

Obey was not just finally offering the same commonsense opinion that the rest of us had been promoting for several years. He was indicating that "as an Appropriator" (his capitalization) he might just possibly be willing to withhold funding.

That same week, Obey voted for more funding for Afghanistan, but the pretense maintained then was that the funding for any escalation would not be voted on until 2010.  The supplemental bill for $33 billion that is expected to come up for a vote in April or May is, in fact, the funding for the escalation.  But of course, the escalation will largely have already happened, so we can expect the excuse to be widely used that it’s too late now not to fund it.  All is not lost, however, because Obey has evolved his position to the point of favoring withdrawal.

By November, Obey was pushing for a war tax to pay for the wars, and introduced legislation to create it.  Of course, that bill has not progressed, and does not appear likely to pass soon or to survive the senate and the president.  More important is the position Obey began to take in November.  He would not fund an escalation in Afghanistan unless a war tax was created to pay for it.

Here’s ABC News:

Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin, made it clear that he is absolutely opposed to sending any more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and says if Obama decides to do that, he’ll demand a new tax — what he calls a "war surtax" — to pay for it.

"On the merits, I think it is a mistake to deepen our involvement," Obey said. "But if we are going to do that, then at least we ought to pay for it. Because if we don’t, if we don’t pay for it, the cost of the Afghan war will wipe out every initiative we have to rebuild our own economy."

Obey’s opposition to funding a troop increase in Afghanistan without a new tax would pose a significant problem for Obama if he decides to send more troops (a decision the White House says the President could make as early as November 30).

As Appropriations Committee chairman, Obey was a key player in securing money for the war when the last war funding bill narrowly passed the House in June.

His demand for a new war tax echoes a similar call by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, also a Democrat, who recently told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt that he favors a new tax on Americans earning more than $200,000 a year to pay for sending any additional troops.

Obey argued that the tax should be paid by all taxpayers, with rates ranging from 1 percent for lower wage earners to 5 percent for the wealthy.

The White House won’t be able to count on Obey’s support the next time the president seeks funding for the war.

That all sounds good, but what about action?  Well, on Wednesday, Chairman Obey voted to end the war in Afghanistan.  Of course, the bill was expected to fail and failed.  The war did not actually end.  But Obey acted so as to end it.  He cannot then consistently take charge of funding its continuation, much less escalation, with a $33 billion supplemental. 

Obey could try to fund the ongoing occupation of Iraq and defund the one in Afghanistan, but that wouldn’t make any sense in terms of the concerns Obey has articulated.  He told ABC News that war costs would cripple necessary domestic programs:

"That’s what happened with the Vietnam War, which wiped out [President Lyndon Johnson’s social program] the Great Society," Obey said. "That’s what happened with the Korean War, which wiped out Harry Truman’s Square Deal. That’s what happened with the end of the progressive movement before the ’20s when we went into World War I. In each case, the cost of those wars shut off our ability to pay for anything else."

And Obey’s reasons for not funding the wars include the ongoing practice of funding them off-the-books with "emergency" supplemental bills.  Last June, Obey said he would go along with that corruption one last time, as he did, but that come 2010, he’d have no more of it.

I’m not suggesting that congress members are always, or even usually, consistent.  But Congressman Obey is moving in the direction of peace, and if we keep pushing him, he may just have the nerve to take a stand.  Within the next couple of months we may hear stories of him screaming again, but at the right people this time.