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Obscure by design

Making sense of the fight over Ukraine funding in Congress

The U.S. Capitol Associated Press/Photo by Jose Luis Magana

Obscure by design
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After a recent gripe session about Congress, a friend summarized our shared frustration: “They use the arcane to obscure.”

It was a perfect summation of what is so fundamentally wrong about the current state of our political process. The government is so big, the issues so complex, the process so convoluted, and sources of information so compromised that everyday Americans can’t reasonably be expected to know what’s really going on. Politicians use this to their advantage by prioritizing their interests, telling voters what they want to hear, and relying on their inability to know the truth.

This dynamic is playing out yet again in the fight over a spending bill referred to by Washington policy wonks as the “supplemental.” This is a bill containing more than $60 billion for Ukraine, plus tens of billions more for Israel, military operations in the Indo-Pacific region, and more. It’s also the bill that Senate leaders are trying to attach immigration reform and border security provisions to, believing that doing so will facilitate its passage.

More on those details to follow. First let me explain what the “supplemental” is supplementing.

Every year, Congress is responsible for passing a budget and appropriating the funds necessary for that budget. Budgeting and appropriations are separate things, and appropriations is much, much more significant. Budgets are messaging documents, whereas appropriations dictate where the money actually goes. “Appropriators” (members of Congress who sit on the Appropriations committees) exercise disproportionate influence over policymaking.

When an emergency arises that demands a Congressional response, a “supplemental” bill can be passed to direct money towards it that wasn’t originally planned in the annual appropriations process. Natural disasters are an easy example of such a need (although it must be said that there is a hurricane season every year, and Congress has set aside funds to respond to “known unknowns” like storms). The atrocities of Oct. 7 in Israel are another example.

Now, you may be asking, “This supplemental is for Ukraine, a war that’s been going on for two years. How is that an emergency?” Great question. It’s not! Congress has already expended more than $100 billion in response to the war in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Lawmakers absolutely foresaw the need to consider further appropriations and should have included those costs in the annual appropriations process. They chose not to because they are somewhat sensitive to really big numbers, and really sensitive to really big increases in spending year-over-year. Keeping the extra $100 billion on a separate tab is politically easier.

But wait, it gets worse.

Congress still hasn’t finished the appropriations process for FY24 (October 2023-September 2024). You may have heard the news about a different fight in Congress over the “continuing resolution” (CR) and the possibility of a government shutdown. That means Congress is simultaneously deciding how much money to spend through the standard appropriations process and debating even more funding on top of that. 

Disgusted? You should be.

Lawmakers have questioned whether the integrity of our border merits at least as much attention and investment as Ukraine’s struggle.

The fate of the supplemental is still to be determined. The need for such a bill was first proposed by President Biden way back in October. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom are strong advocates of additional funding for Ukraine, quickly announced their intention to pass the President’s request. However, the Republican-controlled House, plus a small group of Republican senators, have stymied the bill’s progress in the months since that initial request.

Their concerns are many. While no one wants to see Russia succeed in its ambition to take over Ukraine, there are major questions about America’s strategic interests in the fight, whether there exists a strategic plan to achieve those interests, and how much it will cost to achieve them. Many have raised concerns about the lack of oversight over the funds and weapons that have already been given to Ukraine.

There are also serious concerns about the humanitarian crisis and security situation on America’s southern border. With record-breaking numbers of illegal migrants sneaking over and being processed through the border daily, lawmakers have questioned whether the integrity of our border merits at least as much attention and investment as Ukraine’s struggle.

In response to those concerns, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford has spearheaded an effort to add bipartisan border security provisions to the supplemental. Whether those efforts result in a bill that will be acceptable to Republican border hawks and Democrats with their own immigration priorities is unlikely.

The unlikelihood of an acceptable deal on border security and outstanding concerns about Ukraine funding suggest that this supplemental funding deal is going nowhere fast. Nevertheless, the Senate is planning to begin processing it this week.

The surest path to success would be for Democratic leaders, including President Biden, to swallow H.R.2, the bill House Republicans passed months ago to secure the border. Doing so would unlock funding for Ukraine, alleviate a real crisis affecting Americans, and take a major political liability for President Biden off the table in this election year. However, H.R.2 is anathema to the Democratic base to which the administration is beholden.

Late last week, the funding deadlines for appropriations were punted again to March 1 and 8. So hang on. Things are about to become even more frustrating.

Eric Teetsel

Eric Teetsel is vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation.

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