Written by J. Bennett Guess
In order to find out how your U.S. senator voted on President Bush's whopping $87 billion war package for Iraq, you'll have to check more than the Congressional Record to find the answer. You'll have to ask in person. That's because the nation's "most deliberative body"—as it is sometimes called—basically gave final approval by secret ballot.
On Monday, Nov. 3—the day before election day—94 out of 100 senators failed to show up to cast their all-important votes on one of the most costly pieces of legislation ever "debated" in U.S. history. In an obviously pre-arranged farce, only six lawmakers were on hand to cast their non-recorded voice votes. And since none of them bothered to ask for a quorum count, the rest were not required to show up and let their constituents actually know on which side of the fence they were hiding.
This way, no public record exists, and no single senator must take responsibility for the outrageously-expensive decision. Surely the mere size of the appropriation should have merited more legislative ownership of the process.
If you find it hard to visualize the magnitude of $87 billion, then just consider the fact that this one line item is significantly larger than any other single domestic program. According to Newsweek, it's twice as large as the 2004 budget of the massive U.S. Department for Homeland Defense and 87 times the amount our government has promised to spend on rebuilding Afghanistan. With $87 billion, we could spend $7,909 on each U.S. child who lacks health insurance or hire 2 million additional teachers, police officers or firefighters.
Even if we could somehow convince NBA-rookie superstar LeBron James to donate his entire $1.8 million annual base salary to the rebuilding effort, he would have to play professional basketball for 48,333 years to equal the government's recent allocation.
Earlier this year, I was dismayed when the federal government under-funded its much-touted "Leave No Child Behind" education bill by $8 billion, or less than one-tenth of the money we're using in Iraq. This week, however, the reality of those domestic cuts hit all too close to home when I learned that young children in my neighborhood soon will be walking to school—up to two miles in one direction. School busing in my district is being axed to alleviate an anticipated $60 million budget shortfall.
Times are hard, but let's see now É If you divide $60 million by $87 billion, what percentage do you think that might that be? On this matter, I agree with Bush, who said on Jan. 6, "When [Congress] talks about deficits, they can join us in making sure we don't overspend. They can join us and make sure that the appropriations process is focused on those issues that are absolutely necessary to the American people."
Recently, while waiting in the dentist's office, I read an article in a parents' magazine about creative ways to teach children about budgeting. One suggested technique is to put symbolic money in a jar that represents the family's summer vacation expenses, and every time a child wants something outside the family budget, the child is given the option of taking the money once-earmarked for "the beach" in order to fund the impulsive whim. Make a big deal of the discernment process, they say. This way, the article suggests, children will learn the valuable lesson that any money one diverts to a new priority directly affects the amount of money available for other priorities.
And so it is, right now in Washington, there's this big, once-overflowing, now empty jar waiting to tend to all the needs of our nation's rural communities, inner cities, public schools, city hospitals, homeless families and disabled veterans—and nobody even cared enough to show up and make a big deal of it.