Maya Schenwar: Bush Keeps War Cost Under Wraps
Bush Keeps War Cost Under Wraps
President Bush's 2009 federal budget, released Monday, does not declare how much funding the administration expects to need for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. The omission appears to break a law that requires the inclusion of the year's total war funds in the annual budget plan.
The administration's budget includes an "emergency allowance" of $70 billion, but states that more money will be requested once the war's "specific needs" are determined.
Starting with just a partial sum may leave the door open for the largest war price tag yet, according to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who said at a press conference last week that the $70 billion would "handle much of the first quarter of '09." A year of such "quarters" would total $280 billion - almost two times the president's original war request for 2008. Defense Secretary Robert Gates named a smaller price - $170 billion - when pressed during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, though he quickly qualified the estimate, saying, "I have no confidence in that figure."
Even $170 billion would be the highest initial "global war on terror" (GWOT) budget yet; Bush's annual request last February weighed in at $145 billion. The latest addition would bring the war's total cost so far to about $1 trillion.
Not providing a full-year war budget estimate is technically illegal, according to a provision in the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, although there's no mechanism for enforcing that law. Congress enacted the provision on the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, which emphasized that funding GWOT through so-called "emergency" requests "reduces transparency and avoids the necessary reexamination of commitments, investment priorities and trade-offs."
Bush's present flaunting of the legislation lets him off the hook on explaining the enormous cost of war to the American people, according to Anita Dancs, research director of the National Priorities Project.
"There has been a lot of public outrage over how much has been spent on the war, and if the administration put a more realistic amount in the budget, it would reinforce that anger," Dancs said. "This way they can say they did account for the wars, but anyone knows that since the administration has signaled its intent to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely that $70 billion is nowhere near enough. The administration doesn't yet want to draw attention to the true amount it needs for war next year."
What's more, in its projections for fiscal year 2010 and beyond, the administration has projected zero dollars for the wars. Based on these "projections" and only a thin slice of the funding necessary to continue status quo operations in Iraq, the administration has argued that its 2009 plan will set the government on track to balance the federal budget by 2012.
Withholding Iraq/Afghanistan war funds from the budget estimate not only makes a balanced budget seem possible, it also prevents a clear view of how war spending affects the federal deficit, according to Craig Jennings, federal fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch, a nonprofit government-watchdog organization. This year's budget slashes funds for health care, education and housing programs in the interest of "balancing the budget," while billions of dollars in war funds, not yet formally requested, are exempt from scrutiny.
Jennings pointed to how the omission of war costs from the annual budget has distorted thinking on the federal deficit in past years.
"In 2006, the administration spent $120 billion on war," Jennings said. "Almost half of the budget deficit was because of war funding, but we never had this conversation nationally, because it wasn't included in the budget. When you have supplemental funding, it looks like free money. It makes it seem like there are no consequences to spending it."
That illusion of debtlessness not only drains federal coffers; it also inhibits us from seeing what's at stake when military operations keep growing, according to Dancs.
Bush's 2009 plan cuts discretionary domestic funding by $2.4 billion. That number may seem like a blip on the radar compared to the colossal level of defense spending in this budget - more than the military spending of all other countries combined. Yet, cutting $2.4 billion means drastically reducing subsidized housing vouchers, federal support for renewable energy initiatives, foster care funding, community development grants and a host of other programs geared toward low- and middle-income families.
With the $170 billion that Gates suggested might be requested for war next year, those programs could be funded 71 times over. But without that war money lined up alongside domestic programs in the budget, Dancs says, Americans can't see the disparity.
The exclusion of war funding from the president's budget also impacts defense policy more directly: it means Congress has less time to consider the war requests when they are released, according to Steven Kosiak, vice president of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. By the time the administration asks for supplemental war funding, it is billed as an "emergency" necessary to keep troops safe, and Congress is under pressure to approve it quickly.
Such is not the case for nonmilitary security-related spending, which is never termed an "emergency." According to the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget for the United States, almost 90 percent of security funds are spent solely on military force-related activities - and that's before war appropriations are added in. Only 10 percent goes to nonviolent preventative measures such as diplomacy, foreign assistance, arms nonproliferation efforts, homeland security and contributions to international organizations.
Can Americans expect priorities to shift before the 2009 budget is solidified? It depends what happens before Congress tackles that budget: Part of Bush's 2008 war request still has not been approved.
"The administration will be pushing Congress any day now for the remainder of the funding," Dancs said, pointing to late spring as a time frame.
With a new funding vote on the horizon, some Democrats hope to provoke a change in Iraq policy. Over the last several war spending votes, a growing number of Congress members have been pushing to include a timetable - or at least a tentative goal date - for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. However, despite a rising level of public opposition to the war, as demonstrated by Democratic victories across the board in the 2006 Congressional election, Bush's requests for "no strings attached" money have won out every time. Congress has yet to begin reversing Bush's course on Iraq. According to Kosiak, it won't happen until the Bush administration leaves office.
"My guess at this point is that nothing will be enacted that has any restrictions on it," Kosiak said. "There's not going to be a deal struck with this president on war funding. It looks like that prospect will be up to the next administration."