The Mother of All Defense Supplementals

Much to the chagrin of the Pentagon’s comptroller, Tina Jonas (who has a B.A. in political science from Arizona State University and an M.A. in liberal studies from Georgetown University – although you would think that the chief financial officer for a $500 billion-plus organization would have an accounting or business administration degree), word has leaked out that the Department of Defense supplemental request for fiscal year 2007 may be as large as $160 billion (previous supplemental requests were $74 billion in 2003, $72 billion in 2004, $82 billion in 2005 – which included tsunami relief funding – and $66 billion in 2006). That’s not a typo: $160 billion – twice as much as any of the previous supplementals and more than one-third of current fiscal year Department of Defense budget ($439 billion).

But why does the Pentagon need such massive emergency funding?

Part of the reason is wishful thinking about what the Iraq war would cost. When White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey suggested in September 2002 that going to war against Iraq might cost $100-$200 billion, he was rebuked and chose to resign (perhaps the same way that former Secretary of State Colin Powell resigned) three months later. Citing Office of Management and Budget estimates, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once thought the Iraq mission might cost $50 billion or less. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz famously opined that Iraqi oil revenues of $50-$100 billion would pay for the occupation and reconstruction instead of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Wolfowitz also criticized Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s estimate that it would take hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to occupy and subdue Iraq as "wildly off the mark." But with the price tag of the Iraq war currently at $340 billion and counting (some economists have estimated that the total cost could be a staggering $1 trillion to $2 trillion), it’s been the administration that has been wildly off the mark when it comes to Iraq.

The Pentagon has also steadfastly claimed that it cannot estimate the costs of the Iraq war (and subsequent occupation and reconstruction) because it is impossible to accurately predict the war’s duration, its destruction, and the extent of rebuilding afterward. But that’s not even a poor excuse – it’s no excuse at all. The federal government is a sea of budget analysts. The Pentagon’s comptroller’s office routinely estimates costs of future weapon systems and programs that are difficult to predict with precision, as do the Office of Management and Budget, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office.

(In fact, I once asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld why the Pentagon was using supplemental requests for Iraq and Afghanistan rather than including the costs in the regular budget. I was basically told that wars are funded by supplementals because the costs of war could not be planned. Later in the meeting, Secretary Rumsfeld made a point of saying that the Pentagon had the best financial planners in the federal government. Go figure.)

Moreover supplemental funding is supposed to be for unforeseen circumstances (such as tsunami relief or Hurricane Katrina relief), not ongoing operations. At this stage – after more than three and a half years – Iraq can no longer be considered an unforeseen circumstance. According to Steve Kosiak, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, "the idea is [supplementals] are supposed to be used when there is a surprise. This is no longer a surprise that we are in Iraq."

Moreover, because supplemental funding is not subject to the normal congressional authorization and appropriations process [.pdf], it becomes a tempting catchall for everything and the kitchen sink for the Pentagon. For example, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, more than $7.5 billion cut in the FY2005 Defense Appropriations Bill was restored in the supplemental. And supplementals can be a magnet for congressional pork-barrel spending. For example, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) added $40 million to the 2005 defense and tsunami relief supplemental for flood damage and mitigation in the Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu.

Finally, it is worth noting that Secretary Rumsfeld does not plan to make a final decision about the request until Nov. 15, a week after the midterm elections, and that the apparent reason for the dramatic increase in the size of the supplemental is an October 2006 memo written by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England that expanded what could submitted in the supplemental request to include any and all costs related to the global war on terrorism, not just for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If – as many election forecasters are predicting – the Democrats manage to regain control of the House and possibly the Senate, it is hard to ignore the post-election implications of the supplemental. Clearly, a new Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress will be very much opposed to the administration’s "complete the mission" (AKA "stay the course") policy in Iraq. Yet Vice President Cheney told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the administration intends to go "full speed ahead" with its Iraq policy regardless of the midterm election results. Although the White House has not been successful in convincing the public that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, by including costs that can be claimed to be related to the war on terrorism in a supplemental that has been previously used to pay for costs associated with the Iraq war, it will be harder for Democrats to push back on Iraq without being accused of being soft on terrorism.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.