Boosting the defense budget through the back door.

Military analysis.
Feb. 20 2008 5:02 PM

This Is Not an Emergency

Supplemental war funds are a backdoor way to boost the defense budget.

A U.S. soldier in Baghdad. Click image to expand.
A U.S. soldier in Baghdad

Over the past six years, the Pentagon has requested $778.6 billion in "emergency war funds," in addition (as a "supplemental") to its ever-growing annual budget. Congress tends to approve this request, with almost no scrutiny, for fear of holding up the urgent needs of our troops.

However, a close look at the fiscal year 2008 supplemental—totaling $189.3 billion, by far the largest to date—reveals that a large part of it (how much is unclear but certainly tens of billions of dollars) has little to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or, in some cases, it is related to the wars, but the equipment being requested won't be delivered for years. It is, in other words, not an "emergency"; it could just as suitably be requested in the normal budget process.

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This is not a trivial matter. The annual budget resolution is subject to ceilings, imposed both by the White House's Office of Management and Budget and by the Congress. The ceilings aren't as strict as they once were, nor is the oversight of individual programs as fastidious. Still, there are limits. The supplemental requests fall outside the scope of these limits. So if huge chunks of these supplementals have nothing to do with the war or aren't needed right away, this means the defense budget is being expanded through the back door—not just for this year, but as a base line for many years to come.

The emergency war fund has risen sharply over the last two years—from $124 billion for fiscal year 2006 to $171.3 billion for FY07 to $189.3 billion for FY08. (Along with the FY09 budget, which was submitted earlier this month, the Pentagon attached an additional $70 billion supplemental as a "place holder"—no details as yet.) Some sources of this spike are clear: the troop surge, rising fuel prices, the growing need for "force protection" gear in the face of more sophisticated roadside bombs.

But, according to a report by Amy Belasco, a defense budget analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, "the single largest factor" in this increase is a change in the way the Pentagon defines "war-related expenses."

Supplementals are necessary in wartime. When the Pentagon puts together a budget request for the next fiscal year, its managers can't predict how much the war will require by the time the budget goes into effect. The point of a supplemental is to fill the gap—the unforeseen expenses—that emerge in the meantime.

From the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration did something that previous war presidents had not done: It declared that all war costs would be funded through supplementals. That was unusual enough, but no official or lawmaker dissented.

However, in the fall of 2006, the Bush administration went a step further. Before then, contingencies—such as those requiring supplementals—were defined as incremental costs "that would not have been incurred had the contingency operation [in this case, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] not been supported." The regulation stated explicitly that a supplemental could contain funds to research, develop, or purchase weapons systems only if they were necessary to support a war "in that fiscal year."

On Oct. 25, 2006, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England issued a new rule, stating that a supplemental could include "incremental costs related to the longer war against terror (not just OEF/OIF)"—the initials standing for Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (the war in Iraq). The phrase "the longer war against terror" was not defined. Theoretically, it could cover anything.

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