Iraq War 'Blank Check' Balloons
Besides demanding Iraq War money with no withdrawal timetables attached, the Bush administration has insisted on another kind of “blank check” – war spending that has more than doubled in four years while evading serious congressional oversight because it’s wrapped in “emergency” appropriations bills – a study says.
The Congressional Research Service reported that the average monthly costs to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has reached about $12.3 billion, $10 billion for Iraq alone, more than double what it cost to fund the war in 2004.
CRS also noted that nearly all the $516 billion allocated by Congress to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has come from “emergency” spending bills that deprive Congress of the routine opportunity to scrutinize how the Pentagon spends the money.
Dozens of these “emergency” funding requests have zipped through Congress since 2001 in an unprecedented manner when compared with previous military conflicts, the CRS said. In past wars, the bulk of the spending went through the normal appropriations process.
The Bush administration’s use of emergency supplemental appropriations to fund the five-year-old war in Iraq and the seven-year conflict in Afghanistan may have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, according to the CRS, an investigative arm of Congress.
“Over 90 percent of [the Defense Department] funds were provided as emergency funds in supplemental or additional appropriations; the remainder were provided in regular defense bills or in transfers from regular appropriations,” said the CRS report, issued in February.
“Emergency funding is exempt from ceilings applying to discretionary spending in Congress’s annual budget resolutions. Some Members have argued that continuing to fund ongoing operations in supplementals reduces congressional oversight.”
Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow and budget scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through emergency legislation is both unusual and troubling because it complicates tracking the real cost.
“While other wars have initially been funded using emergency supplementals, they have quickly been incorporated into the regular budget,” de Rugy said. “Never before has emergency supplemental spending been used to fund an entire war and over the course of so many years.”
De Rugy has just published an article on this topic, “The Trillion-Dollar War,” in the May issue of Reason magazine.
The CRS report also questioned the reasons behind the skyrocketing costs for the wars.
“Although some of the factors behind the rapid increase in DOD funding are known — the growing intensity of operations, additional force protection gear and equipment, substantial upgrades of equipment, converting units to modular configurations, and new funding to train and equip Iraqi security forces — these elements” fail to justify the increase, the CRS said.
Furthermore, a $70 billion “placeholder” request included in the fiscal year 2009 budget that the Pentagon says will be used to finance operations in Iraq does not include any details on how the money will be spent “making it impossible to estimate its allocation,” according to the report.
The CRS added that the Pentagon has used these emergency supplemental requests to get Congress to fund equipment and vehicle upgrades that would otherwise come out of the Pentagon’s annual budget.
“Although some of this increase may reflect additional force protection and replacement of ‘stressed’ equipment, much may be in response to [Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon] England’s new guidance to fund requirements for the ‘longer war’ rather than DOD’s traditional definition of war costs as strictly related to immediate war needs,” the CRS said.
“For example, the Navy initially requested $450 million for six EA-18G aircraft, a new electronic warfare version of the F-18, and the Air Force $389 million for two Joint Strike Fighters, an aircraft just entering production; such new aircraft would not be delivered for about three years and so could not be used to meet immediate war needs,” the CRS said.
The CRS recommended that Congress immediately begin to demand more transparent accounting of the Pentagon’s “emergency” spending in order to prevent any cost-shifting chicanery.
However, in the short term, the Bush administration again is citing imminent budget shortfalls for the troops if Congress doesn’t approve the war funding requests immediately.
On Wednesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said the military will soon run out of cash if lawmakers don’t act to approve a $102 billion emergency supplemental spending bill to continue funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We start running out of military pay for our force in June, we start running out of operational dollars that we can flow to the force in early July,” Cody said. “It’s all about time now. Those will be the consequences of not getting the supplemental.”
The CRS and the Government Accountability Office generally accept Cody’s time-frames on the prospective shortfalls, but note that the Pentagon could dip into its budget and transfer other funds to finance operations in Iraq until late September or early October, which would give Congress more time to scrutinize the emergency funding request.
These dire warnings from the Bush administration – about troops in a war zone running out of money – have become routine since Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006.
Republican lawmakers and administration officials have said failure by Democrats to pass the emergency spending bills is tantamount to not supporting the troops, rhetoric that has often worked in spooking Democrats into capitulation.
Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates threatened to fire more than 200,000 Defense Department employees and contract workers because congressional Democrats balked at approving the administration’s spending package for funding the Iraq War.
The Congressional Budget Office and the GAO told Congress that Gates could tap into the Pentagon’s $471 billion budget to fund the war while Congress continued to debate the merits of giving the White House another “blank check” for Iraq. But the Congress soon blinked.
The Democrats are likely to find themselves in a similar predicament this year, caught between political pressure to “support the troops” and accounting concerns regarding the administration’s financial data.
In a letter to Congress on March 17, the GAO said the $108 billion in war funding that the Pentagon has recently requested is based on “unreliable” financial data and should be considered an “approximation.”
A Pentagon spokesman did not return calls for comment. But a GAO spokeswoman said the DOD has been struggling with “deficiencies in the Pentagon’s financial management system” that contributed to the unreliable data. She would not elaborate.
Some academic studies have projected the total cost of the Iraq War soaring past $2 trillion. However, the Congressional Budget Office said trying to estimate future costs for the war is difficult “because DOD has provided little detailed information on costs incurred to date.”