Friday, November 10, 2006

A Trillion Dollar Military Coming Soon?

The line in Shakespeare’s Richard III runs, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Beyond the immediate exigency of a monarch unhorsed in battle that the play portrays, a broader interpretation of this passage might be framed as: “What price empire?”

In Richard’s case, his life was the price, and in the end he paid that price. On the broader scale, as the 110th Congress takes up its duties in January, it will have to decide the cost of empire and whether it is worth risking the economic well-being and future fiscal health of the United States by spending in a single year nearly a trillion dollars for offensive and defensive military programs.

How close is the U.S. to this figure? That’s a hard question because even the Pentagon doesn’t know. Its system for tracking expenditures remains so inaccurate that none of the oversight agencies – Government Accountability Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service – knows the answer either. In a recent study of how these three agencies track the costs of military operations in the administration’s “global war on terror,” their estimates differed by $9.9 billion and as much as $23.3 billion more than the Pentagon says.

However, the country is nearer than most people – including many in Congress – might think. Going through the different sources and the different congressional committees that have some appropriations power over the military budget, the following numbers emerge.

The Fiscal Year 2007 Defense appropriation bill, signed into law already, has $436.6 billion. To this must be added $11 billion authorized in prior years to cover the costs of retiree health costs. Military construction and “quality of life” issues for the current forces have grown to $59.8 billion. And military nuclear weapons programs that are funded in the Department of Energy budget add $17 billion more.

So far, military related spending for 2007 comes to $524.8.billion.

But the nation is still paying for past wars. The Veterans Administration is slated to receive $76 billion. The interest on the money borrowed to finance past wars is conservatively estimated at $169.4 billion (“conservative” because this is only 42 percent of the national debt and other organizations attribute up to 80 percent of the debt to past wars and preparation for wars).

This brings 2007 spending for military-related activities to $770.2 billion.

Then there are the future wars, the ones President Bush promises will not happen because of the preparations by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Just as the Pentagon’s preparations deter enemies, so too do the preparations of DHS – at $27 billion for 2007.
Still in the future, the word on the streets in Washington is that the anticipated 2007 supplemental funding request the White House will send to Congress in February will not be for $60 billion but for $160 billion, Moreover, the Pentagon has been given authority by the Office on Management and Budget to “borrow” $11 billion from the 2008 budget to by badly needed equipment.

Putting it all together, 2007 costs for past, current, and future wars comes to $968.2 billion – within hailing distance of the one trillion mark.

President Bush could, of course, cut the supplemental back, or Congress could. But the latter is unlikely as the Democrats are still wary of being labeled “soft on defense.” On the other hand, as the comptroller general of the United States has said, the nation cannot recover or hope to sustain its economic health unless it gets spending under control.

And the only place to start is to jettison the global “war” on terror.


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