Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Watch that war dollar

<>December 31, 2006

I've steered clear of politics in recent weeks, not because nothing's happening. Rather, I've had that scary sense of being in the eye of a really wicked storm.

We sit, this Sunday, on the precipice of the unveiling of the president's new plan for Iraq. The only certainty is that the plan will be expensive.

Reports vary as to exactly how expensive this obscenely expensive war has become. Some say emergency funding will hit $170 billion by fiscal year-end 2007, with the anticipated $100 billion-plus emergency dole-out from Congress.

That's $170 billion in spare change, over-and-above the military's fiscal 2007 budget of $447 billion. Is it just me, or is this staggering?

Bush administration budget director Rob Portman said two weeks ago that the estimated cost of the war for 2007 was too low, at $110 billion. The year just past cost $120 billion.

The war's weekly cost in dollars -- which neglect to express the cost in lives -- was estimated in September at $2 billion. That's $2 billion every week, according to a Congressional study. And the study was completed before November's intensified fighting.

One month ago, the number of American dead or wounded in Iraq was around 25,000. I hate to say "around," because each one of those 25,000 represents one very important person, but these are figures drawn from a chaotic situation; they are the best we have. The number will be higher when you read this than when I wrote it, a few days ago.

There is at least one Web site out there with a ticker running, as the figures for the war bill climb, climb, climb. It's a disturbing sight.

I thought perhaps I should cite exact sources for the figures you are reading, because they seemed so incredible. Any time one makes a wild allegation, it should be backed up, or at least blamed on some faceless source. But these numbers are all widely published, I found. They are not the rantings of alarmists; they are from the nation's checkbook. The Congressional Budget Office reported in September that the administration's "alternative spending path" will require -- under a narrowly defined set of circumstances -- $480 billion between 2007 and 2016, for basic military operations.

Earlier this year, in a widely discussed study, a couple of serious number-crunchers estimated that the war bill will hit $2 trillion years before 2016.

That's with a T.

Attempts were made to debunk the study and its authors, one of whom is a Columbia University economist and Nobel Prize winner. The $2T figure takes into account the long-term health care costs of our Iraq veterans -- a subject as shadowy, it seems, as the budget for the war itself. The study claimed to take a moderate approach at calculating the cost of caring for these ten of thousands of war veterans. It assumed we'd be in Iraq until 2010, with a gradual withdrawal of troops. These assumptions may be more conservative than moderate.

Emergency cash, please. Again.

I tried to find recall the recent history of emergency funding for the Iraq war -- exactly when and how much and how often these dole-outs have been approved.

Seems to be a repeat occurrence: What, another $80 billion? What, another how many billion?

The president asked for the initial unbudgeted $87 billion in the war's first year. Because his bad behavior was rewarded, he seems to have formed a habit.

This "supplemental" method of paying for the war has come under criticism for the fact that it sidesteps the budget process, and -- imagine this -- erodes the oversight by Congress of executive spending.

Last summer's emergency war dole legislation required that financing of the war be done through the annual budget. What an idea.

Ah, but this little amendment was met with another of the president's bad habits: the signing statement. The president made a note that this requirement to put the war's costs in the annual budget is not binding. His logic? It is the president who submits the budget to Congress. I'm stretching to grasp this one, but it sounds a lot like: You're not the boss of me.


Did I say that in my last political rant? Sorry. It's so concise.

All this to say, readers, let's all pay attention.

There is a war going on, a very expensive war. And you are paying for it.

Daily Southtown columnist Marlene Lang can be reached at blackbirdlang@yahoo.com.

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