Veronique de Rugy on Using Supplemental Appropriations to Fund the Military

Veronique de Rugy has an article in Reason magazine about a topic I’ve been pissed off about for a long time:the fact that this administration is still funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (plus other expenses) using supplemental appropriations, which are supposed to be reserved for emergencies and unexpected costs. A war can qualify – such as the Gulf War – if it begins unexpectedly in the middle of the year. But at this point, nobody can credibly claim that the administration is surprised every year, after the budget request is turned in, to find that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still ongoing.

Here’s how its supposed to be done:

In 1951, for instance, 72 percent of the kick-off cost for the Korean War —$33 billion in today’s dollars—went through supplemental appropriations, while $13 billion came from regular appropriations. But by year two, Congress appropriated 98 percent of the war’s funding through the regular defense budget. By 1953 the president no longer requested any funding outside of the regular defense budget.

The decade-long Vietnam War followed a similar pattern. In the first year of the war, Congress provided all of the funding in emergency supplemental bills. The second year, the administration requested a little less than 50 percent of the war funding within regular defense appropriations. By the fourth year, all of the war funding went through the regular defense budget process. This despite the fact that troop levels were in flux, military strategies were changing regularly, and the duration of the conflict could not be foreseen. In the 1990s, the Republican-led Congress showed a kind of discipline it would completely forget during the Bush presidency, directing President Bill Clinton in fiscal year 1996 to fund all ongoing military operations, including the enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq, from the regular defense budget rather than supplementals. From then on, Clinton sought funding for Bosnia and other conflicts entirely through the regular appropriations process.

In the 1980s, throughout President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, no Cold War spending was allocated through supplementals (see Figure 2). And once you account for the offsetting contributions from American allies during and after the first Gulf War ($35 billion out of the total $42 billion price tag), it is clear that until recently very little U.S. military spending was treated as an emergency.

Here’s how GW does it:

What a difference with today’s wars. Five years into the Iraq conflict and seven years into Afghanistan, the administration and Congress have buried all of the explicit funding—totaling more than the spending on either the Korea or Vietnam wars when adjusted for inflation—in emergency supplementals.

What changed? Aside from internal fiscal discipline, the single biggest procedural shift came in 2002, when the Congress let lapse a law that had required budget cuts to “offset” emergency expenditures.

Who benefited? The Pentagon, the political party that ran Washington in the early 2000s, and their friends.

“The Bush administration is clearly capable of projecting costs in Iraq,” says Travis Sharp, “and has simply ignored historical precedent.”

This year the Department of Defense once again failed to include the cost of war in its record-breaking $515 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2009. Instead, it included a placeholder for yet another $70 billion emergency war supplemental—which, conveniently for the administration, does not get counted in deficit projections.

Pressed by Democrats during the annual defense budget hearings in February, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates confirmed that the $70 billion was only a small fraction of the total expected war cost for the year. Pressed further, Gates estimated that military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would cost at least $170 billion in 2009.

He immediately added, “I have no confidence in that figure.”

I should add… the administration is nothing if not adaptable.

I guess it beats this alternative method of funding which is getting trial-ballooned, or this one, despite the familiarity that some members of this administration might have with it.