Although a substantial majority of Americans oppose the Bush administration's proposed escalation of the war in Iraq, Congress apparently will do nothing more than serve up non-binding resolutions expressing disagreement with the president's policy. Vice President Dick Cheney was quick to declare that neither last November's defeat at the polls, record low public opinion numbers, nor Congressional disapprobation "are going to stop us."
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Congress' reluctance to exercise its constitutional budget authority to influence a foreign policy disfavored by most Americans stems from the administration's implicit threat to brand anyone who votes to cut off funds for its war "defeatist," or worse yet, as endangering the lives of soldiers in harm's way. In short, Bush and Cheney have called Congress' bluff. Meanwhile spending for the war continues at a roughly $100 billion annual pace, driving up record deficits and reducing policy debates about critical domestic needs, such as fixing Social Security and Medicare and decent health care for all Americans, to a zero sum game.
So why do we put up with this? Where is that outpouring of energy and indignation that forced the country out of our last foreign policy debacle in Vietnam? The answer seems simple enough. For most Americans this is an academic debate. The elimination of the draft means that the cost in American lives falls on those who chose to join a volunteer army.
As long as the press is forbidden to take pictures of the flag-draped coffins coming home, we can console ourselves with the self-serving thought that they must have known the risks when they signed up. Nor has the administration's war caused us the least material discomfort. For the first time in our history we are waging a war almost exclusively by means of deficit spending. Far from asking sacrifices of the American people, the administration has purchased our indifference with massive tax cuts. And incredibly, most of us seem perfectly content to leave it to our kids to figure out how to pay for our wars, as well as our retirements.
So here is my modest proposal: Since those in Congress who oppose escalating and prolonging the conflict in Iraq will not withhold funds for fear of being swift-boated in the next election, perhaps it is time to call the president's bluff for a change. Tell him that as long as American soldiers are in harm's way, no responsible, patriotic representative could consider extending his signature tax cuts. Pass and hand to the president for his signature or veto a temporary "national emergency surtax" assessed at 10 percent of federal income tax liability. And to make it clear that the intended beneficiaries of the tax are those who are doing the fighting and dying, only those who have served in the military since 9/11, or survivors who have lost a loved one in military service since that date, would be exempt from the surcharge.
With personal and corporate income taxes bringing roughly $1.3 trillion into the treasury every year, a 10 percent surtax would cover the annual cost of the war, with enough left over to begin implementing the anti-terrorism recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The tax would expire as soon as the president certifies to Congress that no American service person, other than those serving in U.N.-authorized peace keeping missions, is in a combat zone. Call it a "temporary tax surge." And let any senator, representative or member of the executive department who opposes the measure be accused justly of defeatism and refusing to support our troops.
My modest proposal would have a number of benefits. It would it staunch the flow of red ink in the federal budget. It would allow the Pentagon to provide our young men and women in harms way with the body armor, properly shielded vehicles and reinforcements they should have had before they were asked to go into action. It would free up some of the federal budget for national priorities other than war making. Perhaps most importantly, it would give all Americans a stake in the conflict. Those who object to higher taxes need only vote for candidates who promise to end the tax by bringing our young men and women home.
Finally, it would place responsibility for the tax hikes where it belongs - on the president. It would reduce the risk that the next president will be made the scapegoat for the failed policies of the current administration. Indeed, the president who eliminates the need for the national emergency surtax will be a hero of sorts.
David C. Crosby is a Juneau resident.