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Soaring war funding raises concerns about scope of spending
USA Today
By John Yaukey, Gannett News Service
February 2, 2007

WASHINGTON — Next week, the Bush administration is expected to send Congress what could be one of the largest supplemental spending requests in history — $100 billion or more, primarily for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's supposed to cover basic costs, including personnel, equipment repairs and replacement, ammunition and other directly related operating expenses not covered by the Pentagon's regular annual budget for fiscal year 2007.

But military budget analysts and tax watchdogs say if the past is any indicator, the Pentagon and the Congress will try to load this off-budget shopping cart with expensive new weapons and pork for the voters that has nothing to do with defense or any of the disaster relief that emergency spending bills sometimes fund as well.

A recent memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England raised red flags by recommending that the various armed services use the upcoming emergency appropriation not only to fund operating expenses in the two wars, but also to go after money for "overall efforts related to the global war on terror."

That was an invitation to a feeding frenzy, say analysts who track military spending.

"These supplemental requests are very slushy," said Chris Hellman, a defense analyst with the Center for Arms Control. "You don't have anywhere near the amount of scrutiny and oversight with these as you do with the regular budget so you can get away with a lot."

Critics of emergency spending to fund the military also say it hides the true financial costs of the wars from the public by separating them out from the regular budget.

Since 2001, the year U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, Congress has approved $383 billion in extra military spending on top of the Pentagon's growing annual baseline budget.

Changes ahead

The upcoming supplemental bill is intended to be the last for the Pentagon. Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon henceforth is supposed to be calculating what its wars will cost and request the money in the annual base budget.

While budget hawks say getting rid of the military supplementals is a step in the right direction, the readjustment will make for some eye-popping dollar figures next week as the budget process gets underway. That's because the upcoming emergency funding request for the rest of fiscal 2007 will coincide with the Bush administration's 2008 budget proposal, which will include the war costs normally dealt with down the road in supplementals.

The net affect will be requests for defense spending that will total as much as three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

"You will see some whopping numbers next week — no question about it," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., watchdog organization.

Lawmakers argue that major purchases such as weapons systems and new cutting-edge equipment should be requested in the annual budget because they can be tracked more closely there and cut it if necessary.

The Pentagon's annual budget request comes with hundreds of pages of explanatory notes while supplemental requests contain scant information about how the money will be spent.

One 2006 emergency request for $68 billion included five pages explaining how $33 billion in the request for military and operations and maintenance costs would be spent.

England argues that supplementals make sense because it's much easier to pay for a war periodically rather than try and project the costs two years into the future, which the regular budget process would require.

"Wars are highly dynamic and when circumstances change, we need a mechanism to handle it," he said. "Supplementals capture the reality of warfare."

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They're also a magnet for political pork once lawmakers get a hold of them during the approval process.

Once Congress got done with a 2005 emergency supplemental request, it included $24 million for maintenance of forest roads in California, $10 million for wastewater facilities in Pennsylvania, $2 million for a desalination facility in New Mexico, $2 million for a chemistry lab at Drew University in New Jersey and much more.

Sometimes, Congress and the Pentagon work together to lard these supplementals.

In an emergency request last spring, the Pentagon asked for 12 C-17 transport jets, which defense analysts said should have been paid for with the base budget.

Lawmakers not only approved the request but also bumped it up by 10 jets.

That was a boon to the community of Long Beach where 6,500 Californians are employed helping to make the jets — all thanks to a powerful senator who sits on the committee that oversees spending.

"I hope that this funding is the first step in ensuring that more C-17s will be built in the coming years," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told her constituents in a news release.

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