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Lawmakers criticize Pentagon for underestimating war costs

WASHINGTON—Lawmakers from both parties criticized senior Pentagon officials Thursday for using emergency spending bills to fund the Iraq war, which they said should have predictable costs by now.

Democrats and Republicans at a House Budget Committee hearing also questioned the Iraq war's rising price tag, saying they face increased pressure from constituents to justify congressional support for the conflict.

The bipartisan grilling at the budget panel's first session in the new Congress underscored the difficulty that President Bush faces as he seeks legislative approval for sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the budget panel's new chairman, displayed a chart depicting the Iraq war's annual costs since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Another chart put the total cost of the conflict at $379 billion, with fighting in Afghanistan adding $98 billion.

"How do you account for the fact that the cost of the war keeps going up and up and up?" Spratt asked a panel of three Defense Department officials, led by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

England said costs have risen the last two years—from $108 billion in 2005 to a projected $170 billion this year—partly because the wear and tear is requiring the Pentagon to replace planes, tanks and other costly weapons.

England didn't cite the unexpected strength of the Iraqi insurgency and the spreading sectarian violence. But he alluded to it, telling one exasperated lawmaker: "War is dynamic. Turns out that the people we fight have a say."

The last Congress provided $70 billion for the two wars in the Pentagon appropriations bill for the current fiscal year. England said Bush will send the new Congress a supplemental funding measure next month; he didn't deny lawmakers' claims that it will seek an additional $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush will send Congress his overall budget proposal on Feb. 5, but lawmakers said his recent budgets have provided few details of future spending for the wars.

In a series of testy exchanges, England defended using emergency appropriations bills—called "supplementals" on Capitol Hill—to fund the bulk of the war since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

With most of the attention on Iraq, one committee member after another asked England why after nearly four years the Pentagon can't accurately project the cost of a war in the annual budgets and appropriations requests it sends to Congress.

"I hope you can sense that there's a growing angst about these supplementals that keep coming in," said Rep. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, the No. 2 Republican on the committee.

At a separate hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, urged the Defense Department to rely less on emergency funding measures.

"Moving more funding into baseline budgets, particularly for the Department of Defense, would enable decision-makers to better weigh priorities and assess trade-offs," he said.

Lawmakers and analysts beyond Capitol Hill say the supplemental war measures carry few details and give Congress little time to evaluate them.

England said that budget projections and appropriations bills contain only rough estimates of war costs because they move through Congress months before the time periods they fund. Emergency supplementals, by contrast, "pretty much capture the reality of actual warfare," he said.

That answer wasn't good enough for some lawmakers.

"Supplementals are supposed to be for those war costs that are unanticipated," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif. "I think a lot of us are worried about abuse."

Campbell and other lawmakers accused the Pentagon of using the emergency funding measures to get money for expensive equipment and other needs with few ties to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., pressed England about reports that the forthcoming emergency spending bill will seek money for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new-generation jet fighter now in production.

Becerra said the F-35s won't be available for several years, which he said won't help the 140,000 soldiers already in Iraq.

"Our troops aren't interested in knowing what's going to be on the horizon five years from now," Becerra said. "They want to know what's going to be in the air and on the ground helping them today."

England responded that it would be foolish for the Pentagon to replace old aircraft with similar planes.

"When we lose two airplanes in Iraq, we recover the cost of those airplanes," he said. "We don't go back and buy old-model airplanes. It would make no sense to do that."

England said U.S. military budgets shrank during the post-Cold War lull in the 1990s, creating a backlog of aging equipment that the stress of war has exposed.

Spratt, though, said the Pentagon should be able to get a better handle on its war costs and to estimate them with reasonable reliability.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended incorporating those costs in the regular budget and appropriations process, Spratt said, and Congress passed legislation requiring it to start next year. Not doing so, he said, makes it difficult to eliminate federal deficits, which totaled $248 billion last year.

"If the president's budget purports to bring the budget to long-term balance, it has to include realistic cost projections of our enormous military efforts abroad," Spratt said.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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