Obama requests $580m. for Mideast ‘contingencies’

Fund to address turmoil in region; criticized by some members of Congress for being too high given lack of political plan.

Obama at Boston memorial 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
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 specific missions.
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.
“With the 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 historic standards.
“In these budgets, there’s a lot of flexibility,” Fisher said.
“It’s what presidents do when they don’t have what would be described as a ‘plan.’”