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Biden wants Ukraine aid slipped into massive US govt funding bill

His latest request could push total spending on the war to $70 billion. Will Congress get the chance to even debate it?

Analysis | Europe

The White House knows members of Congress have one major priority left on their to-do list before they leave Washington, D.C. to campaign in the midterm elections: pass a spending bill that keeps the government open beyond September 30. The Biden administration would like lawmakers to tack a huge emergency spending package onto that must-pass bill, and they’re proposing the United States commit $13.7 billion more to help Ukraine fight Russia’s invasion.

Attaching a major emergency spending package to a must-pass spending bill robs members of Congress of more debate and deliberation about the contours of such an emergency package. Faced with casting a protest vote against aspects of the emergency spending or avoiding accusations of effectively “voting for a government shutdown,” many members may choose the latter path.

If Congress accedes to the Biden administration’s request, then the U.S. government will have committed nearly $69 billion in taxpayer funds to Ukraine in just six short months. While U.S. policymakers and citizens of all ideological stripes support helping the people of Ukraine beat back Russian military aggression, it’s up to Congress to carefully scrutinize each funding request from the administration. Instead, too many lawmakers have sought to measure their level of support by how much money they can direct to the cause — much of it to the U.S. military rather than the people or government of Ukraine.

The latest request from President Biden allocates about half of the total funding to the Department of Defense ($7.2 billion) and the other half to the Departments of State and Energy ($6.5 billion). This is in line with the first Ukraine aid package Congress passed ($13.6 billion total, which included $6.5 billion for DoD and $6.8 billion for State) and the second, much larger aid bill Congress passed ($41.6 billion total, including $20.1 billion for DoD and $19 billion for State).

As noted above, if the Biden request passes as is, then total U.S. taxpayer commitments to Ukraine will approach $69 billion in six months. For context, that’s more than triple what the U.S. spent in Afghanistan in the first year after 9/11 before adjusting for inflation, and still more than double what the U.S. spent in the first year of Afghanistan after adjusting for inflation. It’s also more than the State Department's FY2022 budget and what Russia spent on defense in 2021.

This spending is not paid for or offset elsewhere in the budget. Congress has not, for example, given the regular DoD budget a haircut to cover the costs of sending DoD billions more to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, as my organization National Taxpayers Union has noted, all of the current and proposed Ukraine funding will be “financed by more debt, which American taxpayers will have to pay back someday.” In fact, rising interest rates mean that the interest costs alone on this $69 billion in debt could be an additional $14 billion to $15 billion over 10 years, raising the taxpayers’ total tab for Ukraine assistance to as much as $84 billion.

Using DoD’s own methodology for its Cost of War reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, if Congress passes the Biden request, the war in Ukraine will have cost each taxpayer in America about $373 in six months, or about $62 per taxpayer per month.

Many may say that cost is worth it, especially when it comes to the economic and humanitarian assistance the United States is providing the Ukrainian people. However, for many Americans, $373 is not an investment they would want to see squandered or, worse yet, to fall into the wrong hands.

I have written before:

“Spending surges to federal agencies come with an enhanced risk for waste or misuse of taxpayer dollars, and we would encourage Congressional watchdogs and the State Department IG to exercise vigorous oversight of how any emergency funding [in Ukraine] is spent.”

Afghanistan unfortunately offers a cautionary tale. I wrote for Responsible Statecraft in May:

“Among the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) ‘best practices’ for future aid in Afghanistan, released earlier this year, are: ‘insist[ing] that any organization receiving U.S. funding is fully transparent,’ ‘set[ting] a tolerable level of risk, and be[ing] ready to end an activity if that risk becomes too great,’  and ‘keep[ing] track of how money is used and regularly reassess[ing] to see if activities are actually helping people.’ Other best practices include ‘determin[ing] clear, relevant metrics that measure actual outcomes, not just how many dollars were spent,’ and ‘be[ing] prepared to pull the plug” when activities are going poorly.’

In the months since, there’s little evidence that Congress or the administration are taking these best practices seriously. According to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, DoD has not “estimat[ed] long-term costs” for equipment and infrastructure projects in Europe, and has not yet taken GAO up on its recommendation to “develop cost estimates for sustaining posture initiatives … in the long term.”

And already some of the most hawkish members of Congress are suggesting President Biden’s $13.7 billion request is not enough. Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), an influential lawmaker who has pushed defense spending above sustainable levels for years, tweeted that the Biden administration’s proposal “is insufficient.” Inhofe also argued “Congress will have to lead again,” presumably by increasing the topline taxpayer commitment in this third Ukraine aid package. 

Many Americans support sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to help the people of Ukraine, and will continue to support doing so. That does not give lawmakers, DoD, or the State Department a free pass to send money out the door without proper safeguards or a long-term plan for U.S. engagement in the war. Both are still missing from the bigger picture debate about U.S. funding for Ukraine.

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