Obama at Boston memorial 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
NEW YORK – Built in to President Obama’s budget proposal for 2014 is a $580
million contingency fund to address the turmoil roiling the Middle East and
North Africa, to be spent across the region over the course of the year at the
discretion of the White House and the State Department.
That sum is
striking some members of the Congress as too large for an administration without
a coherent policy toward the Arab Spring.
But officials familiar with the
package say that the half-billion dollar fund is not a meaningful military
contingency fund for the unforeseen as much as a placeholder for the White
House, until the administration figures out what to actually request for
As large as the number may sound, it supplements the
State Department’s request for $47.8 billion in discretionary funding for
international development – a six percent decrease from last year’s request.
Additionally, the budget details an increase in embassy security funding of $2.2
billion in the wake of the Benghazi attacks.
“As a rule of thumb,
presidents prefer flexibility, and members of Congress prefer to constrain the
executive,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna
College in California.
“It’s a large sum, but almost by definition, a
contingency fund has to be broad.”
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee),
ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Secretary of
State John Kerry during a hearing on the budget request why the breakdown didn’t
include structured funding for a plan to handle the Syrian crisis, calling the
fund a “vague request for open-ended authority, rather than a request for funds
tied to clear priorities.”
During Kerry’s opening remarks he acknowledged
the committee’s investment in Syria and noted that the administration has spent
nearly $385m. on humanitarian aid for Syrians alone.
Alternatives for the
White House on the budget structure are unclear, and Corker’s office declined to
provide such alternatives when pressed by The Jerusalem Post
elimination of earmarks, Congress has essentially ceded their power of the
purse, and that’s a problem because Congress has been the guardian of values in
American foreign policy for decades,” says Danielle Pletka, formerly a senior
professional staff member on Senate Foreign Relations for over a decade and now
a scholar with AEI.
She cites Iran policy as a prime example of the
Senate’s role in the direction of US foreign affairs.
“Contingency is a
synonym for slush,” Pletka added. “When you ask for a sum like this, its a
desire for a lack of oversight by the administration for the contingencies that
it sees ahead.”
One longtime veteran of the Congressional Research
Service and constitutional scholar, Lou Fisher, says that the fund is large by
“In these budgets, there’s a lot of flexibility,”
“It’s what presidents do when they don’t have what would be
described as a ‘plan.’”