Somebody in government finally asks a taxing question about the next war

Walter Pincus
Reporter June 20, 2012

At last, after 11 years of the United States at war, a few minutes of public discussion of a tax to pay for the fighting. But that would be for the next war.

“What would be the impact of going to war again without committing to pay for that war with upfront taxes, something we did not do in either Iraq or Afghanistan, for the first time in the history of the country?” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta at a Senate defense appropriations subcommittee hearing on June 13.

That’s a question that should be asked before any president sends U.S. forces into a fight overseas or members of Congress propose legislation that authorizes some sort of military action abroad.

“We basically ran that war [Iraq] on a credit card,” Leahy told Panetta, who was there to discuss the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. “Now we find people who are calling for more military action in other parts of the world; at the same time, they do not want to consider any way of paying for it.”

No details were mentioned, but Leahy obviously was thinking about the drumbeat to provide air cover and arms to the Syrian opposition to President Bashar
al-Assad that is coming from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), as well as from GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his advisers. And who is ready to pay for whatever it may take if the United States has to resort to military action to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? Last year’s Libya effort cost more than $1 billion.

Leahy could also have been thinking about Congress authorizing President Obama’s sending of 100 Special Forces troops into Central Africa in October. They are providing support to Ugandan, Congolese and Central African Republic units searching for the ruthless Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.

Panetta gave the answer you would expect from a former House Budget Committee chairman, Office of Management and Budget director and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. As Clinton’s chief of staff in 1996, he helped negotiate a budget compromise with Republican congressional leaders.

“Obviously,” Panetta told the senators, “if we repeated the mistake of not paying for the war that we decide to engage in, whatever that might be, the results would be that you would simply add more to the deficit and to the debt of this country for the future. You just put that burden on our kids for the future.”

He added, “All of us bear some responsibility to pay those costs if we’re willing to engage in war.”

How quickly would Congress have voted in October 2002, on the eve of congressional elections, to give President George W. Bush authority to use force in Iraq if the resolution had also contained a provision to raise taxes?

In October 2007, a war surtax for Iraq was proposed by three Democratic House members — David R. Obey (Wis.), then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, John P. Murtha (Pa.), then chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, and Jim McGovern (Mass.), then vice chairman of the Rules Committee. It called for low- and middle-income taxpayers to add 2 percent to their tax bill (owe $1,000, pay $20 more) and upper-income taxpayers to add 15 percent (owe $10,000, pay $1,500 more).

Sadly, the House Democratic leadership refused to support the measure, which could have generated up to $150 billion a year, or nearly all that Bush was seeking that year. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized Bush for “adding hundreds of billions of dollars in debt for future generations to repay.” She added, “Just as I have opposed the war from the outset, I am opposed to a draft and I am opposed to a war surtax.”

Given today’s situation, why doesn’t Obama link his request to restore Clinton-level taxes on the wealthy to the $88.5 billion requested for fiscal 2013 to
pay for continuing the war
in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts worldwide? That Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, the supplemental appropriation created to fund Iraq, Afghanistan and other military actions abroad, is expected to continue as long as the United States has troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas confronting terrorists.

For planning purposes, the Congressional Budget Office sees the OCO account running $44 billion a year through 2022.

What about Obama, Romney or even hawkish members of Congress introducing a special excise tax on telephone calls or even Internet usage or ending some tax loopholes to pay that $44 billion a year. Taxes have been used to pay for America’s past conflicts going back to the War of 1812 — except for Iraq and Afghanistan.

I assume the answer is that no one has the nerve, at least not with elections looming.

Panetta’s words should be engraved in marble in the Senate and House chambers and hung on a plaque in the Oval Office: “Frankly, all of us bear some responsibility to pay those costs if we’re willing to engage in war.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to wapo.st/walter_pincus.

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