WASHINGTON—In an early step toward fulfilling their campaign pledge to give greater oversight to the war in Iraq, House Democrats will open hearings this week on the war's spiraling cost.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C., also will use his first hearing wielding the gavel to take a critical look at the expanding use of "emergency" supplemental spending bills to fund the conflict.
So far, Spratt said, the Iraq war has cost American taxpayers $379 billion. For comparison, the Environmental Protection Agency costs about $37 billion this year.
Spratt noted that President Bush didn't mention the Iraq war's cost in his prime-time address on Wednesday, even though it's expected to approach $140 billion this year. That's almost three times more than former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the whole war would cost before it started.
"There was no mention made of what this will cost in human lives or in dollars," Spratt said of Bush's new war plan. "The dollar costs are not necessarily the determinative issue, but they should be a factor."
Before the last Congress adjourned, it passed a Defense Department appropriations bill that included $70 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in fiscal year 2007, with about 80 percent going to Iraq.
Spratt aides and defense analysts beyond Capitol Hill expect Bush to send Congress a supplemental spending measure in March seeking an additional $100 billion for the wars.
That would bring the 2007 cost of the conflicts to $170 billion, 45 percent more than the $117 billion spent last year.
Gordon England, deputy secretary of defense, will testify at Spratt's hearing Thursday. Spratt is expected to grill him about a recent memo in which England appeared to encourage senior aides to use the coming supplemental spending bill to seek funding for Pentagon projects with no direct ties to the wars.
In the Oct. 25, 2006, document, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy Newspapers, England wrote:
"By this memo, the ground rules for the FY (fiscal year) `07 Spring Supplemental are being expanded to included the (Defense) Department's overall efforts related to the Global War on Terror and not strictly to Operation Enduring Freedom (in Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies in Washington, will also testify.
Kosiak said it makes little sense to use "emergency" appropriations bills to fund an Afghanistan war that began more than five years ago and an Iraq conflict nearing the end of its fourth year.
Worse still, Kosiak said, England's memo makes clear that the Pentagon is using such supplemental spending measures as funding vehicles for military needs that go well beyond the wars. Tying the money to "overall efforts related to the global war on terror," he said, could be used to justify almost any spending request.
"Americans' conception of the global war on terror is so broad, it would be like saying during the Vietnam War that these special spending measures could be used to fund any programs related to the Cold War," Kosiak said.
Kosiak and other analysts have heard that the coming spending bill contains large funding requests for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new generation jet fighter with little application in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"It's not really clear what the money is going for and how much of it is actually going to Iraq and Afghanistan," Kosiak said. "There's just a general sense that we're not getting the kind of clarity that we would like to have."
Spratt said that if Bush holds true to form, the budget proposal he'll send Congress in early February for the 2008 fiscal year will set aside little money for fighting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Instead, Spratt said, the administration is expected to send a supplemental appropriations bill a few weeks later, seeking "emergency" funding for the current fiscal year.
"It will be interesting to see what the president's budget leaves out, as well as what it includes," Spratt said. "From the outset of this war, the administration has put defense spending for the (Iraq) war on an emergency track. It has come to us with emergency supplemental bills outside the regular budget process. That plays havoc with the budget, particularly with a restrained budget that we are trying to balance."
Such emergency spending measures carry few details about their targeted uses, Spratt said, and lawmakers have little time to scrutinize them.
Scott Russell, who spent 13 years working for the Navy and Pentagon comptrollers' offices before going to work for Spratt in 2003, said the practice has enabled Bush and congressional appropriators to appear more frugal, while at the same time giving the Defense Department increased funding.
"Over the last couple years, the defense budget has been shaved by appropriators and then backfilled with supplemental money," Russell said.
Republicans have joined Democrats in criticizing the use of emergency funding bills to pay for the wars.
In the Defense Department fiscal 2007 authorization bill, Congress approved language by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, saying war spending should be wrapped into the regular appropriations bills and not the supplemental measures.
"The whole idea of this supplemental is something the American people should reject," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said last year.
At least on his watch as House Budget Committee chairman, Spratt wants that kind of bookkeeping to end.
"We're holding this hearing so that we can begin to establish how much we're spending (in Iraq and Afghanistan), where the money is going and how we can project into the future what these costs are going to be," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.