Al Franken’s Pay for War Gimmick

A comedian-turned-Senator makes some strong points about how America goes to war.

Senator Al Franken has introduced a Pay For War Resolution.

Over the last nine years, we’ve spent well over one trillion dollars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’ve had to borrow nearly every penny of it. We have to ensure that the deficits created by Iraq and Afghanistan remain exceptions in American history, which is why I’ve introduced legislation to require that spending on new wars be paid for. My “Pay for War” resolution will ensure that future wars don’t make our deficit and debt problems worse. It will ensure that Congress and American citizens face the financial sacrifice of going to war. And it will force us to decide whether a war is worth that sacrifice.

How would the Pay for War bill work? Put simply, if we spend money on a new war beyond what’s in the day-to-day defense budget, my legislation says that spending must be paid for. My bill does not specify how we should pay for our wars. It leaves that up to Congress. Different people will have different ideas-some may propose spending cuts; others may propose revenue increases. But the bottom line is that my bill says Congress must find a way to pay for the costs of new wars that we decide to undertake, and I believe doing this will have several key benefits for our country.

First, the financial cost of war should be clear, not hidden. We paid for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by borrowing from other countries and passing emergency spending bills outside of the regular federal budget. The result is that the public gets the mistaken impression that going to war requires no financial sacrifice. We know that that’s just not true. The question is, who will bear that financial sacrifice – the generation that has decided to go to war, or its children and grandchildren?

Second, war shouldn’t add to the deficit. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t singlehandedly create our deficit problem, but they made it much worse. And if we’re going to fix our deficit problem, rejecting how we financed those wars has to be part of the solution.

Finally, all Americans, not just the military, should feel the cost of war. A huge gap has grown between the majority of the American people and the small proportion that serves in the military. So much sacrifice has been asked of them and their families, yet so little of the rest of us. My resolution will reconnect those who serve and our larger society. My bill re-establishes the connection between the citizenry of the U.S. and the costs of going to war – a burden that is now solely undertaken by the men and women of the military and their families.

My bill wouldn’t impede necessary military action. For emergencies, my resolution allows Congress to override the ‘pay for’ requirement by a vote of sixty senators. This is so that if there were a genuine emergency that required immediate military response in the short term, and it couldn’t be covered by the base defense budget, my resolution would not tie our hands.

Ezra Klein is enthusiastic:

The Pay for War Resolution isn’t particularly powerful legislation. It can be overridden by 60 senators — which is to say, the number needed to override it is essentially the same number needed to pass a bill in the first place. But it establishes the principle that war should be paid for, and if the Senate wants to violate that principle, it forces individual senators to say so explicitly.

Except that: It does not such thing. The fact of the matter is that simple legislation–unlike Constitutional amendments and treaties–has no binding effect whatsoever on future legislation. To the extent subsequent laws conflict with existing laws, they override them.

That said, I actually think Franken is right in his aims and rationale. It’s bad enough that Congress has abrogated its war powers to the Executive, helping ensure a cycle of perpetual war. We compound that by making war cost-free for the average American. But, beyond symbolism, a Pay For War Resolution does nothing about either trend.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Fog says:

    If symbolism can spark honest debate (and honest accounting), then symbolism can be both powerful and useful.

  2. reid says:

    I’m curious what the response will be from those fiscally responsible GOP and TP folks. Franken seems to be one of the most hated Democrats for some reason, so I’m sure they’ll spin a counter take.

  3. jwest says:

    I believe Senator Franklin has a fine idea here.

    Although he leaves it up to congress on how to raise the funds, I believe it would be best to establish that in times of war there must be shared sacrifice. To that end, the upper 50% of income earners would be required to fund all the normal government spending as always, while the lower 50% would be taxed to pay for the war spending.

    Fair, reasonable and good for the country.

  4. hey norm says:

    yes, a constitutional amendment would be better than legislation,,,but what is possible given the current political world – where a birth certificate is not a birth certificate and someone who graduated magna cum laude from harvard was not a good student?
    all in all it’s a pretty conservative position. reminds me of the thread from the other day, eh?
    the so-called republicans have moved so far right that they have become the extremeists that they hate so much, and moderates are – from their point of view – “liberal marxists”..
    meanwhile the adults in the room, franken included, are left to pay for the fiscal mis-management of these so-called conservatives…all the while being blamed for the inevitable crisis that ensued.
    good for franken and the democrats for doing what they can to prevent such a travesty from ever happening again. now if they could just get the so-called republicans to admit that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves maybe we could actually get something done.

  5. john personna says:

    Back when Iraq was happening conservatives were reluctant to believe that none of the war was actually being paid for, that it was all borrowing. The idea was met with disbelief.

    Frankin’s proposal is a good one, but it’s sad that it really just comes so long after the horse has left the barn.

    And … there’s plenty of time to forget the lesson as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are unwound, and before a new cycle of adventurism returns.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    Libya is a war? I think I spotted the first loophole.

  7. george says:

    To that end, the upper 50% of income earners would be required to fund all the normal government spending as always, while the lower 50% would be taxed to pay for the war spending.

    Why that split? Just curious.

  8. hey norm says:

    george…
    you need to keep up with the tea bagger myths in order to play along.
    according to them 50% of the country does not pay taxes.
    of course they also have tea bags dangling from their hats…so consider the source.

  9. Money is fungible whether it is spent on guns or butter.

    How does Al Franken know that the war wasn’t fully funded and all the borrowed money wasn’t used to buy butter?

  10. Or perhaps I should have asked whether we can apply this to the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs as well as the War on War.

  11. wr says:

    Okay, Charles, this is going to be hard for you, but try to follow along: When the US goes to war, those war expenses cost money. That money is added to the total outlay of the federal government. This bill proposes that an amount equal to that extra spending be raised either by higher taxes or lower spending. It doesn’t matter which dollar goes to a gun and which goes to payroll. It’s the amoung that matters, not the serial numbers on the bills.

    Is that clearer now?

  12. How does Al Franken know that the war wasn’t fully funded and all the borrowed money wasn’t used to buy butter?

    I think that the definitive proof here would be the number of emergency spending measures passed specifically for war funding.

  13. john personna says:

    Oh my. Charles shows how conservatives can warp their own minds to invert the obvious.

    It doesn’t matter if we were running a deficit before the war(s). Once the wars came along THEY were the things paid for out of cash receipts. It was all the previous spending (NPR!) that goes into the debt column.

  14. Janis Gore says:

    I don’t think that the one-time tax-free dividend helped at all. That was what, 2002? My family benefited from it, but at the Gulf Coast it fueled the housing speculation boom, combined with the extraordinarily low interest rates at the time.

  15. TG Chicago says:

    @jwest

    I believe Senator Franklin has a fine idea here.

    Although he leaves it up to congress on how to raise the funds, I believe it would be best to establish that in times of war there must be shared sacrifice. To that end, the upper 50% of income earners would be required to fund all the normal government spending as always, while the lower 50% would be taxed to pay for the war spending.

    That sounds just fine… since it would mean the odds of us entering into another war would approach zero.

    (Of course, hey norm is correct about the myth you are propagating here. But in this case, I don’t mind. If the official conservative position was that all costs of the war — human and financial — should be borne by the poor, that would be quite illuminating.)

  16. TG Chicago says:

    @Joyner:

    I actually think Franken is right in his aims and rationale. It’s bad enough that Congress has abrogated its war powers to the Executive, helping ensure a cycle of perpetual war. We compound that by making war cost-free for the average American. But, beyond symbolism, a Pay For War Resolution does nothing about either trend.

    So what’s a better way of reversing the trend?

    I don’t think this is merely symbolic. If this gains traction and a vote actually takes place, it can shift the debate. We can see how sincere the Tea Partiers are about fiscal discipline. If this is passed, but is later overridden by an unfunded war supplemental, Senators who voted for both bills can be called to the carpet for their flip-flopping. It might not entirely end unfunded war, but it could do much to discourage it.

    I think there’s value to this resolution. But if you think there’s a better way to go about it, I’m all ears.

  17. Jib says:

    I like it but the fact remains that it wont help prevent a war. Remember when the Iraq War was starting and people were outraged when Shinseki said it would cost more than $100 billion? You would have thought he took a piss on the oval office carpet. They will fudge the numbers at the start of the war much worse than they do now.

    But I still like it because taxes would go up as the spending increases. Free wars are a very dangerous thing for a nation.

  18. So dollars spent on guns are somehow different than dollars spent on butter? Fascinating.

    Of course, if I could write fiat checks to myself and have them honored by everyone else, then paying the mortgage would be no different than buying a Maserati either, I suppose.

  19. Janis Gore says:

    Mr. Austen, you are intentionally being oblique. The discussion is how to go forward.

  20. Barry says:

    jwest: “To that end, the upper 50% of income earners would be required to fund all the normal government spending as always,”

    Liar.

  21. Hey Norm says:

    jib…
    Remember they fired the guy that told the truth about the cost of their Medicare giveaway to big pharma too. Ryans budget numbers were made up by the Heritage foundation. The republicans don’t let facts stand in the way of extremist ideology.

  22. john personna says:

    Here’s an easy example for Charles : a family has income of $55k and expenses of $60k. Each year $5k more goes on credit cards or variable mortgage. Then dad comes home and says “I bought a boat for $20k!” Family says “we don’t need $20k in new debt.” Dad says it can’t all be debt, we are making $55k!”

    A wonderful way to confuse the meaning of a new cost, when you are already losing ground.

    If you are dumb (or ideological) enough you might go for it.

  23. Janis Gore says:

    Continuing to walk the road, these declarations won’t get us anywhere, JP. I presume that you weren’t born yesterday.

  24. john personna says:

    It’s Charles’ argument, that since we have income, the wars can’t be all new debt.

    It was foolish and damaging 5 years ago. Now it’s kind of awe inspiring in its stubbornness.

  25. john personna says:

    It is also amazing in retrospect that the wars are still running with never a single supporting tax accepted (nay, demanded) by the nation.

    Occasional, isolated, shared-sacrafice calls not withstanding.

  26. wr says:

    Is this the same Charles Austin who claims to be a sucessful businessman and then explains how only those who are in business understand how the world and its economy work? And yet he can’t understand that if you add a war to existing expenses, the country’s total outlay rises, whether you say a single dollar is spent on guns or butter?

    If so, I hope he’ll tell us what business he runs. If he ever goes public, I want to stay really far away.

  27. tom p says:

    So dollars spent on guns are somehow different than dollars spent on butter? Fascinating.

    Sooo, Eisenhower was fascinating….

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

    Fascinating.

    Really Charles, if you became anymore divorced from reality, I would be….

    Fascinated.

  28. Sorry to be obtuse, but a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. Out here in the real world if something bad happens that I have to pay for it makes me cut back on something else, no matter how much I want it. Apparently not for the US government.

    Anybody want to take a whack at my comment on the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

  29. wr, you have it backwards and sideways. What a surprise!

    Please point out where I said I was successful ore retract your comment and apologize. Perhaps I am successful, perhaps I am not, but I don’t recall ever claiming it. I’m also quite certain that I have never claimed that you have to run a business to understand how business works, whereas I have said repeatedly that there are a damned lot of people who clearly don’t know how business works but have no problem telling me I should be able to absorb whatever burdens they think I need to have to make socierty better in their eyes. As to the rest, ah what’s the point.

  30. tom p, you misunderstand my point. I’m not sure if that is intentional or not.

  31. The really funny thing is I’m agreeing with Dr. Joyner. It’s an unserious gimmick.

  32. john personna says:

    The really funny thing is I’m agreeing with Dr. Joyner. It’s an unserious gimmick.

    If Joyner believes that, he fails math as well.

    A country has X debt, and while running deficit adds Y in war costs.

    New debt is X + Y.

    It’s simply insane to say that Y is not additive, because there was income all along.

  33. wr says:

    “Please point out where I said I was successful ore retract your comment and apologize. ”

    Gosh, Charles, I will apologize. When you were busy bragging about being a businessman, I guess I assumed you thought you were a success, since you seemed to believe that you knew more about running a business than all those terrible people who wanted to regulate or tax you. But if you’re a failure and you’re bragging about that, I clearly misunderstood.

    Although if you are a failure, maybe you should start listening to all those people you claim to know so much more than. I mean, unless you like being a a failure.

  34. wr, learn to think in somehting other than false dichotomies. We’ll all thank you for it.

  35. wr says:

    Success or failure — that’s a false dichotomy? Again, strange thinking for a self-styled businessman. After all, in business you either make money or you don’t. Or is that a false dichotomy, too?