In 1990, then–President George H.W. Bush signed the Budget Enforcement Act, which allowed Congress to pass emergency appropriations bills that would not count against annual deficit projections. These bills were supposed to be responses to "sudden, unforeseen, temporary conditions posing a threat to life, property, or national security," explained Veronique de Rugy in reason's May 2008 cover story. The act also required Congress to offset that emergency spending with "rescissions" withholding already appropriated funds from other programs.
But in 2002, when Congress let the law expire, all fiscal restraint around supplemental appropriations ended with it. "The floodgates are now open," de Rugy wrote. Congress was now using the newly unrestricted emergency appropriations process to hide the true price tag of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. had by that time already invested $822 billion—"more than the spending on either the Korea or Vietnam wars when adjusted for inflation." And the cost would only rise further.
All that spending has been obscured from the public eye, buried in supplemental bills that often go way beyond addressing actually unforeseen emergencies. And Congress knew exactly what it was doing. As de Rugy noted, a report from Sen. Jon Kyl (R–Ariz.) stated openly that "Congress should fund operations in Iraq through emergency supplemental appropriations (because funding it through the regular appropriations process would unnecessarily inflate the defense budget)." Transparency in the Pentagon's finances, in other words, might lead to sticker shock and thus reduced support for the war effort. The George W. Bush White House couldn't have that.
Supplemental appropriations have been lower under Barack Obama, but that may soon change. In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California, agitation for a new war against the Islamic State has heightened. Sens. John McCain (R–Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) have called for deploying 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria. A "specialized expeditionary targeting force" of up to 200 special ops is already there, and a December CNN/ORC poll found 53 percent of Americans support putting more boots on the ground to combat ISIS.
How much would that ground war really cost? Thanks to emergency appropriations, voters may never find out.