At the end of December, Congress approved $70 billion in bridge funding—a down payment to cover the gap between the beginning of the fiscal year and the passage of the actual appropriation bill—to keep financing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Legislators at the time were still chewing on the rest of President George W. Bush’s request for a fiscal year 2008 war budget of $196 billion. Should that funding be appropriated—and if recent history is any guide, it certainly will—then the total price tag for America’s present wars will rise to at least $822 billion, approximately 80 percent of which will be spent on Iraq. That surpasses the cost of the Vietnam War ($670 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars). And the Iraq portion dwarfs the $50 billion to $60 billion cost predicted at the outset of the war by Mitch Daniels, then director of the Office of Management and Budget.
These runaway costs do not include a single dollar from the Pentagon’s annual operating budget, which in 2008 reached a whopping $481 billion. If the war were being accounted for based on a rational, transparent budget process instead of an opaque and politicized shell game, Americans would be painfully aware that we are now in the seventh year of what the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has called a $1 trillion war.
How much money is $1 trillion? Enough to pay for the entire 1976 federal budget, adjusted for inflation. Enough to write a check for $37,500 to every Iraqi man, woman, and child. Enough to buy 169,492 Black Hawk helicopters, or 455 stealth bombers. Enough, in nominal terms, to pay for the entire federal government from 1789 to 1957. And it’s 10 times more than what specialists predict it would take to eradicate malaria once and for all.
To distract people from the real price tag of a two-front war, the president and Congress have used an unprecedented and fiscally irresponsible budgetary trick: a series of “emergency” supplemental spending bills totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. This scheme has allowed them not only to hide the costs of the conflicts but also to avoid painful budget choices while funneling billions of dollars in unvetted goodies to favored interest groups.
Once a small blip among federal outlays, emergency supplementals have exploded since 2002, when the Republican Congress let a key legislative restriction on their use expire. In May 2007, President Bush signed into law the biggest supplemental bill in history, $120 billion, to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan ($100 billion) and pay for hurricane recovery and agricultural disaster relief at home. This came just five months after Congress approved another $70 billion emergency request for the wars. By contrast, the average annual amount of emergency supplemental spending in the 1990s—a decade that saw interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—was just $13.8 billion (see Figure 1).
Supplemental spending does more harm than merely obfuscating the costs of military conflict. It effectively removes the upper limit on the White House’s war budget. It allows the Pentagon to seek and receive much more funding for mundane operations than it could receive via the normal budget process. And its comparative lack of oversight encourages Congress to shovel out pork to Gulf Coast shrimp harvesters, Hawaiian highway builders, Florida orange growers, and other recipients who have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. As Bush prepares to exit office, this out-of-control spending stands to become one of his most lasting and nefarious legacies.
Bush’s Supplemental Shell Game
President Bush has never included a comprehensive war spending request in his annual February budget. Instead, he has submitted emergency war requests to Capitol Hill, usually sometime in the spring, weeks after the defense appropriation subcommittees begin picking through the Pentagon budget.
Last year, for instance, the president submitted a defense budget request of $481 billion for fiscal year 2008. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were covered in an entirely separate $142 billion emergency supplemental request. In October the administration increased that request to $196 billion, leaving Congress to face a dilemma that has become all too familiar since 2001: quickly approve billions of dollars in supplemental war funding without knowing where the money is going or face browbeating accusations of not supporting the troops. In the end, after little discussion, Congress passed its $70 billion down payment.
Although there are no official limits on the amount or type of spending that can be designated as an emergency appropriation, historically there has been an understanding that emergencies are sudden, unforeseen, temporary conditions posing a threat to life, property, or national security. In September 2005, for instance, after Hurricane Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast, the president quickly requested and Congress readily approved a $52 billion emergency bill.
The costs of the war may be necessary and temporary, but they are by no means sudden or unforeseen. The war in Afghanistan started in October 2001, and the war in Iraq commenced in March 2003. Furthermore, the easy-to-predict salaries and benefits of Army National Guard personnel and reservists called to active duty amount to some of the largest expenditures in the supplemental bills.
“The Bush administration’s use of so-called ‘emergency’ supplemental funding to pay for Afghanistan and Iraq is truly unprecedented,” says Travis Sharp, a military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonpartisan research organization specializing in international security and arms control issues. Historically, while emergency supplementals were the most frequent means of financing the initial stages of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War, past administrations and Congresses funded subsequent military operations in regular appropriation bills as soon as even the crudest of cost projections could be made, according to a June 2006 Congressional Research Service study.
In 1951, for instance, 72 percent of the kick-off cost for the Korean War —$33 billion in today’s dollars—went through supplemental appropriations, while $13 billion came from regular appropriations. But by year two, Congress appropriated 98 percent of the war’s funding through the regular defense budget. By 1953 the president no longer requested any funding outside of the regular defense budget.
The decade-long Vietnam War followed a similar pattern. In the first year of the war, Congress provided all of the funding in emergency supplemental bills. The second year, the administration requested a little less than 50 percent of the war funding within regular defense appropriations. By the fourth year, all of the war funding went through the regular defense budget process. This despite the fact that troop levels were in flux, military strategies were changing regularly, and the duration of the conflict could not be foreseen. In the 1990s, the Republican-led Congress showed a kind of discipline it would completely forget during the Bush presidency, directing President Bill Clinton in fiscal year 1996 to fund all ongoing military operations, including the enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq, from the regular defense budget rather than supplementals. From then on, Clinton sought funding for Bosnia and other conflicts entirely through the regular appropriations process.
In the 1980s, throughout President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, no Cold War spending was allocated through supplementals (see Figure 2). And once you account for the offsetting contributions from American allies during and after the first Gulf War ($35 billion out of the total $42 billion price tag), it is clear that until recently very little U.S. military spending was treated as an emergency.
What a difference with today’s wars. Five years into the Iraq conflict and seven years into Afghanistan, the administration and Congress have buried all of the explicit funding—totaling more than the spending on either the Korea or Vietnam wars when adjusted for inflation—in emergency supplementals.