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Congress and the Pentagon

Co-Abusers of the War Budget

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

The Bush administration has circumvented a significant law, passed by Congress in 2004. The legislation required the president to report by January 2005 on the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the future years, 2006 to 2011. On May 13, 2005, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported that such a report was impossible to write for any fiscal year more than one year in advance.

However, testimony at a July 18 hearing of Congressman Chris Shays’, R-Conn., Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee revealed that no one ever asked the responsible official in the Defense Department to estimate the likely costs of the war: neither before the war was begun (when senior officials were dismissing others’ estimates), nor in response to the statutory requirement.

There is a reasonable claim that costs for any future event is full of uncertainties, however, many have dealt with them in an analytically straightforward fashion. Using clearly articulated criteria for two different scenarios, CBO estimated the costs of future operations in Iraq.

One scenario assumed U.S. military personnel in the Persian Gulf region would be reduced to 140,000 in 2007, and the deployments would end in 2009. The additional costs for that scenario came to $202 billion.

The second scenario would reduce forces to 170,000 in 2007 and 40,000 in 2010; U.S. deployments would end in 2016. Costs would be $406 billion, above the amounts already spent.

What the Bush administration was unable, rather unwilling, to reveal – CBO has analyzed.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, Congress might do about the administration’s non-compliance with the statute.

Another important matter addressed at the July 18 hearing involved the timing and nature of executive branch requests for funding for the wars, such as they have existed. There are two issues; one attracted much attention at the hearing; the other attracted none.

Discussed at much length at the hearing was the administration’s habit of submitting budget requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are either too late or too little. The former come in the form of "supplemental" appropriations requests submitted in the middle of fiscal years. Congress often takes its own sweet time to enact these, and as a result the Defense Department has been forced to raid its own non-war accounts to transfer dollars needed immediately for war spending (called "cash flowing"). The "cash flowing" invariably causes the postponing or cancellation of regular DOD activities. This may be very ill-advised, especially if postponed training activities, are never rescheduled for units going to Iraq.

The other form of war funding comes in the form of "bridge funds," which are provisions added to annual DOD appropriations bills to make money available at the start of a fiscal year. These funds are sometimes, but not always, requested by the president, and they are routinely inadequate to support combat operations for more than a few months. Also, like supplementals, bridge funds are accompanied by the scantest justification materials from the Defense Department, and sometimes none at all. Congress is left quite literally in the dark about what to provide funds for, a vacuum it is frequently happy to fill with favorite ­ but unnecessary even irrelevant ­ spending items (otherwise known as "pork").

A pernicious element to both the supplementals and the bridge funds is that they are designated as "emergency" funds ­ a specific budgetary term that means the money is exempted from the spending "caps" that Congress imposes on regular annual appropriations. The "caps" are intended to restrain spending and keep annual deficits under control. Technically for spending that is not just urgent, but also "unforeseen, sudden, and not permanent" (as defined in OMB and congressional guidance for budget matters), "emergency" funding in effect provides an escape valve for big spenders on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon.

In past years, the Pentagon has included in the "urgent, unforeseen, not permanent" emergency budget, requests of billions of dollars for programs that do not qualify: items such as the Army’s longstanding reorganization costs, known as "modularization." Other Pentagon requests in war budgets have the same appearance, but because congressional oversight is so feeble in the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees the legitimacy or ill-legitimacy of these requests is tricky to identify.

Congress exploits "emergency" spending designations similarly. It transfers billions of dollars in non-emergency, non-war DOD programs from the "capped" regular DOD appropriations bills to the emergency war accounts. According to OMB, the House Appropriations Committee thusly transferred $2 billion in its new 2007 DOD Appropriations bill, and it looks like the Senate Appropriations Committee is transferring even more in its version of the same bill. These shady transfers permit two things:

1) Congress pretends it is cutting DOD appropriations bill and is being "frugal," while it is really only transferring the spending from one account to another. (Doing so also has the negative consequence of displacing billions of dollars of spending intended for the wars with non-war programs transferred from the regular bill.)

2) Congress routinely also replaces some, but not all, of the money transferred away from the non-emergency, capped, annual spending bill with "pork." Some amount of cutting is preserved so the pretense at savings can be made, while, in fact, spending is actually increased. (The net total of the transferred spending and the pork plugged back into the annual bill will exceed the amount Congress pretends that it "cuts.")

Needless to say, it was the congressional abuse of emergency funding that attracted not a single word of comment at the July 18 hearing.

Conclusion

One might expect howls of protest that the Bush administration gave the back of its hand to a statutory requirement to estimate the future cost of the wars. But to expect any such protest, let alone enforcement of the law, is to misunderstand Congress as it currently exists. Today’s Congress is not the guardian of taxpayers dollars, assiduously watching how every pinched penny is being spent. Instead, Congress is happily joining the Pentagon as a co-abuser of its own appropriations process. There are some members of Congress who have the decency to notice and remark upon the transgressions. However, those erstwhile reformers can expect their lamentations to be completely ignored unless and until they decide to take action to give real meaning to their complaints.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at: winslowwheeler@comcast.net.